When Aaron Hudgins walked across the stage to receive his diploma on May 15, it marked the end of three years that had changed his life completely from where he thought it would be. With his children, family and friends cheering him on, he completed a dream that both he and his late wife, JJ, had shared.
“I did it for her and because she wasn’t there to do it with me,” he said. “I kept telling the kids that part of this was for me and part of it was for JJ because we had talked about it, and this is where we wanted to be. We wanted to do this together. We wanted to be on this field together. I took that time to let her have her moment with me.”
Hudgins, a Master Sergeant and brigade S1 for 90th Troop Command with the Oklahoma Army National Guard, enlisted for service not long after graduating from Edmond Memorial High School in 1997. Although he had taken a few classes at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, a lack of interest in the subject matter and no clear direction in which he wanted to go left him doubting his abilities as a student.
He left any thoughts of academic pursuits in the past once he was called to active duty, first in Bosnia, then in a number of additional deployments, including to Iraq and Afghanistan, throughout the next decade. He ultimately earned an associate degree in Applied Science from Thomas Edison University while serving in the National Guard, but he stopped at that point because he was convinced he wasn’t smart enough to go to a larger university to get a bachelor’s degree.
It wasn’t until his wife, JJ, suggested that they return to school together that he began to seriously consider thoughts of attending a university again.
“We met when she joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard,” Hudgins said. “There was an instant connection. It was a perfect storm because our kids—my three boys and her two girls—got along like brothers and sisters from day one. You would have thought they had been together for years.”
Just eight months after they were married, JJ received word that she was to be sent for her third deployment in Afghanistan. Before leaving for training, she broached the idea of going to OU with Hudgins. When she returned from her deployment, she wanted them to enroll at OU together.
“She lived and breathed the Army,” Hudgins said of JJ. “She had four years with the 82nd Airborne and was in Iraq and Afghanistan, but she was ready for a change once she returned from this last deployment.”
Those plans were upset when JJ was injured while training for her mission at Fort Bliss. She was medically discharged from the Army after a broken hip was deemed an “unrecoverable injury.”
She was home for just 10 days before she ended her life on April 28, 2018. She left no note.
“I spent the first year after her death trying to figure out what happened,” Hudgins said. “Where did I miss the signs? I was about to get out of the Army, but I didn’t have any real direction. I didn’t know what to do.”
That’s when his kids—both his sons and JJ’s daughters—reminded him of the plans he and JJ had made to attend OU together and encouraged him to follow through. They wanted him to enroll not only to honor the plans he had made with her, but for himself, as well.
“It took the kids and my family to convince me to go back to school,” he said. “I still didn’t think I was smart enough.
“I knew OU PACS had an online program, and I heard it was pretty good. We have several soldiers in the Oklahoma National Guard that had gotten their degrees in that program, and it’s pretty well-known in the National Guard that it’s a good program to get into.”
After receiving a request for a copy of his college transcripts, he initially ignored the emails he received, still convinced he wouldn’t be accepted.
“Then I started getting an email once a week to remind me what I needed to send them,” he said. “That’s when I knew these people were serious.”
When he finally submitted his transcripts, he still didn’t think he would be accepted.
“At least I could say I tried if I didn’t get accepted, and I fully expected that. I didn’t think I had it in me,” Hudgins said. “When I opened the message and confetti went everywhere with the message ‘You have been accepted into OU,’ I was kind of shocked. It took me a couple of days to take it in. That’s when I started talking to my advisor and decided I was going to make a run at it.”
After consulting with his advisor, Hudgins chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.
“It was like the civilian version of the leadership schools I took in the military. It was structured in almost the same format. There was also subject matter that we don’t address in the military. I learned quite a bit more that I could use in my military career and when I get out.”
“She said I would have no trouble keeping up with the classwork, and I would understand the content,” he said, “She was absolutely right. I’ve been in the Army for more than 20 years, so I felt if I was going to go back to school to get a degree, it would be in a field that had some familiarity with my background, and if I didn’t know the answer, I could rely on my experience.
“Everything she said to do, I did, and everything she said was going to happen happened. Everything fell right into place exactly where it was supposed to fall into place. Every time I got another paper back and got another good grade, it slowly kept building my confidence. The first time I got assignment back and got a 92 (out of 100), I was almost as floored as I was when I got accepted!”
The structure and pace of the college’s online classes proved an ideal match for Hudgins, not only as a student, but also as a father and busy professional.
“Online classes are ideal for anyone who has a serious career and wants to go back to school,” he said. “For someone like me, who not only has kids, but a career that’s extremely demanding, it’s perfect for that.”
Having classes to focus on also gave Hudgins a reason to look forward during the worst moments of grief in the early days of his studies.
“The more I focused on schoolwork, it helped me handle my emotions,” he said. “It helped me focus on a direction."
His trust in his advisor to guide him in the right direction for his unique needs was almost immediately rewarded as he discovered that the subject matter addressed in his organizational leadership program mirrored the training he had received throughout his military career.
“It was like the civilian version of the leadership schools I took in the military,” he said. “It was structured in almost the same format. There was also subject matter that we don’t address in the military. I learned quite a bit more that I could use in my military career and when I get out.”
Each paper that he wrote helped him address a weakness in his ability to communicate his ideas effectively and reopened a side of himself that he said he had turned off in high school.
“I can now write so much more fluently, and I can express myself in so much more detail,” Hudgins said. “I learned a lot about where to go to get the information I refer to in my writing. I stopped using the internet as a reference source and started using the OU library exclusively. If I couldn’t find the information there, I changed my subject.
“The program has really given me a new lease on life and what I can do. I’m looking at different avenues and things in life that I want to accomplish that I was never looking at before. Now, I’m looking at where I can make a difference somewhere else, where can I take what I’ve learned and apply it. I learned that I want to give back. That’s why you join the military, to protect and serve and help others that can’t protect themselves, and I found a lot of nonprofit programs that are veteran-driven, and now I have a direction I want to go in.”
As his sons and JJ’s daughters cheered him on as he received his diploma, alongside the new lady in his life and her two kids, Hudgins made sure to soak in every second of the experience.
“Every step I took toward the stage, I was reliving a moment that got me here,” he said. “It was very emotional for me. When they finally called my name out, it was a lot to take in. As a father, to be able to share that with your kids, that was huge.”
Hudgins plans to take the rest of this year off from his studies to spend time with his family before starting a master’s program in nonprofit leadership in Spring 2022.
“The last two years helped give me a direction and a new purpose to move forward after a tragedy that I didn’t think I was going to recover from. It built my confidence up to think that I had the ability to go back to a university after being out for so long and I could go to a school like OU and actually be successful.
“I want to use this momentum to my advantage.”
To learn more about the College of Professional and Continuing Studies’ undergraduate program in organizational leadership, or for information about additional online degree programs for working adults, visit pacs.ou.edu/degrees.