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Former Navy sailor nets master’s degree

Woman sitting cross-legged on the ground.

U.S. Navy veteran Jacklyn McVay is graduating from ASU with a master's degree in English this December. Here, she completes work on her last day of volunteering aboard the USS Missouri in 2022. "We spent 8 hours that day working on installing teak plugs in the deck," she said. "A lot of work, but such a wonderful day!"

December 01, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a princess … or a dragon … or something.” So began one of Jacklyn McVay’s many writing projects. She had a lot of them; she’d been writing since her childhood in Des Moines, Iowa. She would begin a story then put it in a proverbial drawer — another day, another writing project started and stopped.

McVay, who holds an undergraduate degree in English from American Military University, felt compelled to write, to share her story — but she didn’t know what to do after that. She wasn’t quite happy with what she was producing, either. It didn’t feel “true” or real, and she hid behind humor.

McVay was also a bookworm. Aboard a Naval ship on active duty, she found a way to keep her love of literature and writing alive by serving as a sort of intuitive librarian.

“I would opt to bring books instead of clothes for port visits,” she confessed. “I acted as an unofficial lending library for many of my fellow sailors. My self-appointed job was determining the perfect book that would cause someone who was not a ‘reader’ to fall in love with a book. My locker, about a quarter of the size of the ones in high schools, was full of books and I would keep a log of who was borrowing which book.”

She spent eight years in the Navy as a Cryptologic Technician Technical 1st Class, a position that provides tactical guidance and performs radar surveillance. McVay felt at home at sea and on ship.

“My love for puzzles made troubleshooting electrical equipment a job that I adored every single day,” she said.

She took the opportunity to learn as much as she could, and to give as much as she could. At one assignment in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, she was lauded for her volunteer efforts in preserving the USS Missouri, the battleship famous for being the site of surrender that marked the end of World War II. She received the USS Missouri Legacy Award/Outstanding Military Volunteer by USS for that work.

“But life on the ship was not forever,” she said, “and I moved to a different command where my love for English had to find different outlets.”

After transitioning to civilian life, McVay knew she couldn’t ignore the writing itch any longer. She enrolled in Arizona State University’s fully online Master of Arts in English program in January 2023. She hoped the interdisciplinary program would not only meet her goals but also give her an opportunity to feel as close to an in-person experience as possible. It did. In the program, she has found places to write, to tell her story and to discover and share her authentic voice.

“I have struggled for years with how to cope with my family tensions and how to explain those family tensions to others without using deprecating humor to protect myself, or hiding parts of the stories so that it becomes more palatable for people to learn,” said McVay, who is now living in Stafford, Virginia. “Because of the different courses on composition that I have taken throughout this program, and the recurring theme of the importance of authentic voice in writing, I took it upon myself to tell my story.”

During her master’s studies, McVay has held other positions where she could write and make use of her new technical knowledge, though her personal stories have had to take a backseat, for now. First, she worked as a remote writing tutor for elementary and middle-school kids struggling with English skills. “It was an incredible experience seeing these students gain confidence in their ability to read as well as develop an interest in reading further outside of class,” she said.

The K–12 school year ended and McVay sought another opportunity to test her skills. She took a job as a junior declassification analyst at Kenney Business Solutions, Inc., a private company with government contracts. Among other duties there, like working with classified documents to determine whether they could be redacted enough to be “declassified,” she wrote an update to the Standard Operating Procedures. Most recently, she began a new job on the security and education training team at Calhoun International, a service disabled veteran-owned professional services company.

All this and she completed the master’s degree requirements in just one year; she is graduating this December with a 4.0 GPA.

“I have moved with the tides for so many years and that has allowed me to pursue the different opportunities that have presented themselves,” McVay said. “I know that I make use of the knowledge I have gained in this program every day, though, regardless of what my career path is, and I also know that I am able to convey myself intelligently because of the various teachers and mentors that I have been fortunate enough to learn from.”

We had an opportunity to talk with McVay to learn about her experiences at ASU and what’s in store for the future.

Editor's note: Answers may have been edited for length or clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I have always had a deep and enduring passion for not only reading but writing as well. When I decided to begin working towards a bachelor’s degree again, I initially chose legal studies as my path. I found the information interesting and the classes engaging, but I was not fulfilled by what I was learning, and I did not have the passion to continue researching outside of classes. There were many conversations where I bounced different ideas off either myself or other people to see what would stick until I realized what my major should have been from the beginning. The three bookcases and innumerable creative writing pieces in journals scattered around my home were screaming at me, I just wasn’t listening.

Motivation is the single greatest indicator of a learner’s success in any classroom setting — it can be internal or external motivation — but without that motivation there will be no success. My passion for all things reading, writing and language combine to create a motivation to learn more for the sake of learning and love of the subject.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: The classical rhetoric course (taught by Associate Professor of English Kathleen Lamp) in general changed my perspective. The term “rhetoric” has been somewhat appropriated and morphed into meaning something intent on forcing opinions into a different direction. When the class opened, I equated rhetoric to something that newscasters and politicians utilize to sway the masses and incite fanatical support. Reading the classics and glimpsing what rhetoric was all those centuries ago changed my perspective of what it should be today, and provided a glimpse to the reality that the rhetoricians in ancient Greece were human beings, some were egocentric, some were painfully serious and some were downright hilarious. I would have never guessed that prior to the class and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to learn a better perspective of an incredible discipline.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I did a lot of research into different universities that offered programs that would fit into my life and also provide me an opportunity to pursue a degree that was slightly eclectic. While other universities came close, none approached ASU in fitting what I wanted my degree to be comprised of and the type of educational experience I wanted to have. I wanted to have as close to an in-person experience as possible while going through an accelerated online program, and I don’t think I would have been able to have that with any other university. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: (Faculty Associate in English) Heather O’Loughlin taught methods of teaching young adult literature. Dr. O’Loughlin also taught me not to fall into the same rut that has consumed so many of the teachers and curriculum developers who shaped my elementary and secondary education. There is no benefit to being safe and only looking towards what is familiar, there is an entire world of resources available that can and should be taken advantage of for personal education as well as the education of others.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Just breathe. There are a lot of moments where the end might seem forever away, or that you feel like you are overwhelmed trying to find a balance between course loads and life. Just breathe, take advantage of any and every resource you can, and know that you are not alone. Put your best work in, include your passion and follow the trains of thought that interest you the absolute most and you will do amazingly.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: On the back patio of my home. My dog, who my husband and I adopted a week before my first class started, and I had a standing agreement that when I’d bring my laptop or textbook outside to sit on one of the chairs, we would have the most fun. He would drop his ball next to my leg, never on the laptop or books. I would throw the ball, he would chase after it and bring it back and we would repeat until either I was done or he was exhausted. I got to listen to nature around us and enjoy being outside while reading speeches for my rhetoric class, listening to Ted Talks, reading articles, writing papers or doing revisions that required me to listen to the robotic read aloud function in the hopes of discovering all the errors.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I recently started a job that I am extremely passionate about. It might not be a forever job, but I am thrilled for the future possibilities I have with it. The opportunity to create curriculum that reaches a massive number of individuals and communicate with a very diverse assortment of individuals who may only ever know me through the words that I write. Someday, if possible, I might return to school and either get a doctorate, or if inspiration hits and I fall in love with another subject as much as I love English, I may get an entirely different degree.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would make sure that the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy were met for every student in every school. While motivation is the most important indicator of academic success, it is a hard battle to learn when you are hungry, or exhausted, or freezing or concerned with the multitude of other struggles and difficulties that can, and do, impact learners. If every single student, regardless of age, socio-economic status, nationality or gender were able to go to school and were able to have their physiological and safety needs met as well as have a sense of belonging and esteem from their environment, then self-actualization would be impossible to stop. Every single student would be able to reach their potential and be proud of themselves whether they wanted to be a doctor or a master electrician. I don’t think $40 million would be enough to solve that lack on a global scale and maybe not even on a national scale, but in an idealized world it would be and the world would be a better place because of it.

Written by Kira Assad and Lilly Downs

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