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Veteran finds new career path in geography graduate program

November 09, 2012

NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky once said, “You'll always miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take." For ASU Sun Devil and Staff Sgt. Joe Schoenemann, that sentiment could not define his journey to ASU any better.

“I really didn't want to attend college, mostly because I didn't think I was smart enough be accepted, let alone graduate,” said the Mazomanie, Wis., native.

Under a pact with his then-high school sweetheart Lindsey, Schoenemann began studying construction management at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville.

“As I began to visualize a career, my pride in my schoolwork grew and my grades reflected that pride,” he said. “My favorite part though, was its close proximity to the Mississippi River, where I spent much of the autumn months hunting ducks.”

After his freshman year, Schoenemann was deployed for 15 months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Army National Guard. His infantry battalion was tasked with base defense and quick reaction force (QRF).

In mid-2008, Schoenemann’s brigade was called for another deployment to Iraq. This time, he had been promoted to staff sergeant and was responsible for the safety and discipline of an entire infantry squad. The pressure was immense.

“We left for Iraq in early 2009 where my company served as an augment to U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (USSF ODAs)," he said. “Fortunately, this deployment was much more rewarding in regards to our training, mission and positive impact on the local community.”

When he returned in 2010, his wife Lindsey had graduated from UWP and was searching for a teaching position.

“She proposed this crazy idea that we move somewhere warm where the job prospects were better. I agreed to this idea as long as there were mountains there for me to explore,” he said. “After a little research, I came upon the Phoenix area which was home to ASU where, if accepted, I would be able to complete my degree.”

Looking at ASU’s programs, Schoenemann immediately became interested in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and in summer 2010, he picked up where he had left off in completing his bachelor’s degree.

After just two years at ASU, with no breaks – not even for summer or winter – Schoenemann graduated with Summa Cum Laude honors (3.96 GPA). He earned his bachelor's degree in geography and a certificate in GIS while surpassing his own goals and expectations. But, he wasn’t finished yet.

“I really feel that the talented and passionate faculty members at ASU are directly responsible for my success, with exception to my military service and a valuable lesson I was taught in my first year of college,” he said. “That lesson taught me to treat my college career as job – attend every class on time, complete all assigned tasks, establish a good relationship with the professor, and put forth maximum effort.”

Before graduating Schoenemann was contacted by a geography faculty member, who was looking for a motivated undergraduate student to assist with conducting research on a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project.

“I had just completed a grueling summer session of GIS classes, where I learned the basic operation of the industry standard software," he said. "When I learned that the professor referred me for the NSF position, I jumped at the chance to continue furthering my GIS skills. Little did I know, this decision would change my academic trajectory.”

Schoenemann began working closely with a doctoral student on this project who quickly became a very powerful mentor. Both the faculty member and the mentor encouraged him to continue his education.

“For the third time in my college career, I had really surprised myself by being accepted to yet another degree program,” he said. “This time I had earned the opportunity to pursue a Master of Geography degree within the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU.”

Schoenemann is currently in his first semester of this two-year program. Upon completion, he plans to start a career in natural resources management, specifically focusing on wildlife and forest management through the use of remote sensing (satellite/aerial imagery) and GIS.

“It's amazing to look back on my days at UWP in rural Wisconsin where I loved getting out into nature and hunting ducks early in the morning before rushing back to campus for class,” he said. “I am so passionate about the outdoors, but I never really saw a feasible way to tie it into a career until I came to ASU and began studying geography.”

Since becoming a Sun Devil, Schoenemann is constantly reminded of his great decision to move to Arizona and attend ASU.

“I really value my experiences here at ASU. When I arrived, I was already somewhat of an old man at 24 years old,” he said jokingly. “I'm still often filled with pride when I read of yet another national award that ASU has won or when I read about cutting-edge research being conducted here. One morning, I even awoke to see President Michael Crow on a national news broadcast discussing ASU's success in its pursuit to becoming a ‘New American University.’” 

He also added that the GI Bill and in-state tuition afforded to all veterans helped him pursue his degrees.

“I wouldn't have even considered college had it not been for this benefit. I saw so many of my high school classmates dismiss the idea of college due to the financial burden that comes along with it,” he said. “With these friends in mind, I figured that I had earned this benefit and that I should use it in full. When I graduate in 2014, I will have used up my entire allowance of the GI Bill.”

Despite unexpected obstacles on the battlefield and off, Schoenemann said perseverance is the key to reaching success. He recently ended his enlistment in April, after serving for 9 years.

“ASU has been good to me, and I will forever be a Sun Devil in spirit,” he said. “As I look back on my academic career where I always seemed to be up against daunting tasks, I'm reminded that, ‘You'll always miss 100% of the shots you don't take.’”

Leona Morales
Office of Academic Partnerships