Collin O’Donnell enlisted in the United States Army right after high school and was leading soldiers in Afghanistan by the time he was 21 years old. Now as a Carolina senior, the Tar Heel is serving as a leader for student-veterans.
Collin O’Donnell learned what it means to be a leader when he was in the United States Army.
O’Donnell enlisted as a combat medic after graduating from high school in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 2013, and he quickly climbed the ranks and became a noncommissioned officer at 21.
“I was 21 years old with my own group of guys under me, and I was responsible for their every waking breath,” said O’Donnell, who is now a senior at Carolina studying exercise and sport science in the College of Arts & Sciences. “That’s how it works in the military. If your guy messes up, you messed up. If your guy does awesome, it’s because you trained them well. If your guy gets hurt, it’s because you weren’t being a good leader.”
His military career took him to Italy and then to Fort Bragg to prepare for his deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2017 with the 82nd Airborne Division.
While he was leading in Afghanistan, O’Donnell started to feel that he was ready to finish his military career. He had fulfilled his goals of serving in a combat zone and leading other soldiers, and he was ready for the next chapter.
To prepare for life after the Army, O’Donnell took college classes online while he was deployed. After working full days, he would stay up until 2 a.m. or later doing homework, sometimes being interrupted by bombs going off nearby.
“It was stressful, but it was a way for me to learn how to handle school and real-life at the same time,” O’Donnell said.
After returning home from his deployment, O’Donnell was honorably discharged from the Army in July 2018 — and just one month later, he started classes at Carolina.
Carolina’s commitment to serving its student-veterans was one of the draws for O’Donnell. A year before O’Donnell arrived in Chapel Hill, the Carolina Veterans Resource Center had opened on South Campus. The center, as well as other campus resources for student-veterans, has been a hallmark of O’Donnell’s time as a Tar Heel.
“When I got here, the veteran community was really just rebuilding. It was rebranding,” O’Donnell said. “Since then, I’ve been there through the rebirth of the veterans’ community, and I’m just happy to be part of it.”
At first, O’Donnell was worried that his only identity on campus would be just as a student-veteran. He was nervous about fitting in with his classmates since he was a non-traditional student and was older than many of his peers. The high standards he held himself to in the military carried over to Carolina, and at times, he struggled to adapt to the rigorous environment at Carolina.
“A lot of the time, what these guys in the military will tell you is that we have a hard time in environments like this sometimes because we hold ourselves to this level of absolute perfection,” O’Donnell said. “Because if you’re not perfect in a combat zone, if you’re not continuing to strive to see everything from every angle and making sure that everything is taken care of, people can die.”
But he quickly found friends in the Carolina Veterans Organization who made him feel at home in Chapel Hill and helped him realize that being a student-veteran was something to be proud of.
“Probably the most comforting thing was knowing that I have people, and it helped me get through the tougher times,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell now serves as the president of the Carolina Veterans Organization and works as a veteran ambassador at the Carolina Veterans Resource Center. Both positions help him pay forward the support that he received along the way at Carolina.
“Honestly, for a veteran, most of the time, we can handle it academically. And if we can’t, there’s resources out there that any student can use,” O’Donnell said. “But for a veteran, sometimes you just need friends, or a little bit of extra help from somebody in the community, and just having that here is immensely helpful.”
By Korie Dean, University Communications