By Ysabel Bilbao
Like many students at the University of Idaho-Idaho Falls center, Gregory Austin has never been to the Moscow campus. He has never seen the rolling hills of the Palouse, taken a stroll down Hello Walk or attended a game and cheered with fellow students at the Kibbie Dome – yet he will soon be a Vandal alumnus.
At age 40, Austin has been pursuing his degree for 11 years. He started his education with the help of the Veterans Affair’s GI Bill of Rights scholarship, but that financial assistance eventually ended. Determined to finish, Austin applied for and was awarded the competitive Erma Byrd Scholarship through the U.S. Department of Education.
"I have had a lot of goals," says Austin, as he reflects on his path. "First one was I wanted to be in the Marine Corps. I accomplished that. The second one was that I wanted to be a police officer, and I accomplished that by the time I was 21."
"I ordered my cap and gown…but it is still so surreal."
Looking for another goal, Austin went back to school, not totally sure what he wanted to study. He started in computer science at Idaho State University, but eventually transferred to the University of Idaho center in Idaho Falls and turned his career goals toward a College of Engineering bachelor of science degree in Industrial technology focusing on industrial safety.
"My degree is outside of law enforcement, but there is a good connection between law enforcement and safety," says Austin. "It is a lot of observing, educating the public and enforcing safety procedures. It’s a lot of what a police officer already does."
Austin is a fulltime police officer in Blackfoot. He says his employer has been gracious in working with him to accommodate class schedules and study time. However, this has been a difficult path. In 2002 Austin contracted long-term health problems that required surgery in March. And it didn’t stop there, when the police officer faced another roadblock. While working the streets to keep Blackfoot safe, Austin was hit by a car. He was placing a spike strip on the road to stop a car leading officers on a police pursuit. Austin was hit, leaving him with a broken left wrist, bruised left leg, a concussion, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder and tendonitis, which causes ringing in his ears. This meant another semester away from school, putting him back again.
Despite his trials and tribulations, Austin has beaten the odds and will be graduating. While he doesn’t know when he will leave law enforcement, the new graduate anticipates a career change in his future.
"My plan is to get a job in health and safety. Right now I am hoping to land an internship at the Idaho National Laboratory," he says. "I didn’t get it last year, so I am hoping to win one this year."
It’s not just a passion for learning and to receive a degree that makes Austin stand out, it’s his passion for the University: Austin calls himself a Vandal billboard.
"A lot of people question me about my classes and what the University has to offer at the Idaho Falls campus," says Austin, of when he wears his Vandal gear. "I am like a walking advertisement.
It is just straight up education. You go and take your course and then you go home in the evening, then back to work the next day to do it all over again. It seems like a bit more of a mature campus, most everyone in my classes are INL workers. There are high school kids from the local area, but they are far outnumbered by the people who have jobs and families."
Even though his college experience is over, Austin still has plans to make the most out of his experience and to visit the Moscow campus as soon as he can.
"I want to go up and go to the Kibbie Dome and walk around campus," Austin says. "I get to see the pictures, and I get the emails of all the fantastic stuff they have up there. I have a picture in my head of what it will be like and I would love to see it one of these days for myself.