‘Life gets in the way’

National award honors Burnsville man’s commitment to earning degree

Joshua Young took his first two college courses in Somalia in 1993, the year of the Battle of Mogadishu.

Joshua Young, right, named 2012 Adult Learner of the Year by the American Council on Education, is pictured with Don Winger, his program adviser at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. (Photo submitted)
Joshua Young, right, named 2012 Adult Learner of the Year by the American Council on Education, is pictured with Don Winger, his program adviser at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. (Photo submitted)

Deployed with the Army’s 977th Military Police Company, Young and a few others studied between missions under a fellow soldier with a master’s degree.

“Obviously, the conditions were spartan, to say the least,” said Young, who took an intro to criminal justice course and a juvenile justice course. “But we would find time.”

In December 2012, the 39-year-old Burnsville resident finally finished his bachelor’s degree in police science.

Young wouldn’t be denied his college degree, despite years of detours that included a tour in Iraq, Army officer school, new fatherhood, a broken back and some life-saving exploits as a Minneapolis cop.

He’s one of two students nationwide named a 2012 Adult Learner of the Year by the American Council on Education. The award, given by the major coordinating body for the nation’s colleges and universities, honors students who have used ACE’s recommendations for workplace or military credit while juggling school, career, family and community service.

“I’m the first person in my family to have a bachelor’s degree. And that was important to me,” said Young, who traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to receive his ACE award. “I had wanted to do it for a while. Life gets in the way.”

College wasn’t first on Young’s mind when he graduated from high school in suburban Philadelphia in 1992. He wanted to go but lacked the money, and knew the GI Bill could set him up later.

“My grandfather served in World War II and Korea,” said Young, who enlisted in the Army while still in high school, during the Gulf War. “My father’s a Vietnam vet. It was kind of a family tradition to serve.”

He served in Mogadishu during the Blackhawk Down episode and lost a good friend in combat while patrolling the tense city streets as part of the 977th MPs’ quick-reaction force.

Young also managed to earn his first college credits, granted through Central Texas College.

“It was a good distraction,” he said of the studies.

He left active duty in 1998 and eventually wound up near Lansing, Mich., working as an officer with the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department.

Young finished an associate’s degree through Lansing Community College while also serving with the Reserves and then the National Guard.

Minneapolis police recruiters came to Michigan in 2005, and Young was hired.

Settling in Minnesota, he connected with St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, which offers accelerated bachelor’s degree programs geared to nontraditional students.

Young arrived with 70 credits under his belt. St. Mary’s granted him 35 ACE-recommended credits, leaving Young with 36 more to earn. He took most of his courses at a St. Mary’s satellite site in Apple Valley.

Young also found a kindred spirit in Don Winger, his police science program adviser at St. Mary’s. Winger is a Vietnam vet, a former St. Paul police commander and a retired Maplewood police chief.

Already an experienced cop, Young was a mentor and role model to other students in the program, Winger said.

“He’s a deep thinker who’s just a pleasure to have in the classroom, who cares about the other students,” said Winger, who joined two St. Mary’s deans in nominating Young for the Adult Learner of the Year Award.

After Young settled on St. Mary’s as his finishing school, life got in the way again.

In 2009 he got orders to go to Iraq with the 151st Field Artillery of the Minnesota National Guard. Deployed from April 2009 to April 2010, Young commanded a radar unit on a forward operating base on the Iranian border. His team tracked the skies for incoming mortars and rockets.

“We took a lot of incoming rounds during the time we were there,” Young said. “The mission of the FOB was to interdict along the Iranian border for insurgents coming across.”

After Iraq he was asked to attend officer candidate school and was promoted to lieutenant. That put him in line for a captaincy – another reason, he said, to finish that college degree in timely fashion.

“You can’t advance if you don’t have your degree, and you’re on a timeline as well,” Young said.

He earned a Lifesaving Award from the Minneapolis police in 2011 for dislodging a grape from a choking 8-month-old baby whose non-English-speaking parents had called 911.

Young received a Medal of Commendation last year after interrupting a woman’s beating by a man who had broken into her apartment and was threatening to kill her. The man is in prison now. Young wound up in a brace after breaking his back when he and the man tumbled down the stairs midstruggle.

Almost a year later, he was recently cleared to return to patrol. Young was in the brace when he finished his degree in December.

What didn’t hurt was the 3.92 grade-point average he’d accumulated over years of coursework.

“I have a couple of A-minuses that knocked me down,” said Young, whose wife, Heather, gave birth to their first child, son Sean, on New Year’s Day 2012, and is now expecting their second. “Maybe a B-plus. I did pretty good.”

In May he’ll begin work on a master’s degree in criminal justice through Arizona State University.