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Dedra Ming stands in front of a helicopter.
Dedra Ming

Whether it was as an aviation structural mechanic in the Navy or building her own house or transitioning to life as a college student, Carolina sophomore Dedra Ming has never shied away from a new challenge.

Dedra Ming doesn’t tiptoe into new challenges.

After she enlisted in the Navy to serve as an aviation structural mechanic, she became qualified for three other jobs and moved up the ranks to Petty Officer 2nd Class in just over two years.

When she then wanted her first home, she didn’t scroll through realty listings. She borrowed tools and started building.

And when it was time to pursue a college degree, Ming applied to only one school on the opposite side of the country from her hometown in Alaska without knowing much about the area.

“I didn’t know anything about UNC when I applied here,” she said. “It fits all the boxes. It’s a really good rated school. It has the degree I want. It has the potential for grad school or med school. I could do research if I wanted. So, I said, ‘Yeah, sure I’m going to apply.’ It’s the only school I applied to.”

Now a sophomore majoring in psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences at Carolina, Ming has been taking on new challenges in adjusting to life as a college student and setting the foundation for a new career.

Aviation mechanic 

Growing up, Ming knew that she wanted to go to college, but in a family with six siblings, she knew paying for the opportunity would be challenging. So after high school, she took on jobs as a pharmacy tech and lifeguard. After two years, she knew she needed a change and headed three towns over to meet with military recruiters.

“I’m a first-generation college kid, so paying for college was a big deal for me, and the military provided that opportunity,” she said. “I wanted to do something better and with a purpose.”

The only recruiter in the office was with the Navy, and Ming was pitched on becoming a rescue swimmer — a specialty that required her to pass a physical test. After five months of training, Ming passed all but the running portion of the Navy’s special operations physical exam, missing the mark by just 30 seconds. Instead of a rescue swimmer, she enlisted in her back-up specialty of aviation structural mechanic in February of 2013.

After basic training, she was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, where she joined a command that worked on MH-60 Romeo helicopters. By that December, Ming was in the Bahamas preparing for her first deployment on the USS Hue City. After that ship caught fire a few days into the deployment and was forced to return home, Ming joined the USS Oscar Austin in 2014 for a four-and-a-half-month deployment to the Baltic Sea.

She deployed again for an eight-month trip to the Middle East the following year.

“That second deployment I went to six countries, and the first deployment I went to seven countries,” she said. “Thirteen countries in the four years that I served – that’s an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for 43 consecutive days at sea at a time, Ming quickly mastered the ins and outs of the MH-60 Romeos and became qualified to work on engines, ordnances and was training to become an aviation electrician.

“I really liked learning how helicopters work, how they function,” she said. “I was getting to the point where I knew the helicopters inside and out, and I could have dissected that thing.”

Toward the end of her enlistment, Ming considered making the Navy a permanent career and becoming an officer, but two things changed her mind: A family tragedy struck and her ship couldn’t get her to land in time to take the SAT so she could apply to college. Ming decided to leave the Navy when her enlistment expired in 2017 and return to her family in Nikiski, Alaska.

Once she arrived home, Ming dove straight into a new challenge and began building her own house on land that she bought before leaving for the Navy. She borrowed tools from her dad and built 90% of the house by herself.

“I read and watched a lot of videos on how to build and how to everything basically,” she said. “I took trade courses — three days of electrical, three days of plumbing and three days of carpentry and three days of welding. After that, I just went at it. It took me two years, but I finished building it.”

She finished the house 15 minutes before leaving for Chapel Hill in 2019 to start her new chapter.

Becoming a Tar Heel

Ming wants to become a psychiatrist or pursue a career in psychology research. Much like her interest in helicopters, understanding how the brain works is Ming’s main focus.

“I really like how the brain functions. I like how it works and I want to know more about it,” she said. “It’s really fascinating,”

Throughout her coursework, Ming’s interest in the brain has continued to grow. She wants to attend graduate or medical school. She has even had the opportunity to explore research hands-on by studying brain and behavioral development in children in the Brain and Early Experience Lab.

But the transition to college life as a non-traditional student wasn’t always as easy as she expected — though it never slowed her down.

“The first semester was hard, but it was challenging in the way that I like,” she said. “I like to be challenged.”

The Carolina’s Veterans Resource Center, including the Boot print to Heel Print onboarding program, helped Ming make Chapel Hill her home, continue her pursuits in psychology and take on more challenges as a Tar Heel.

“This provided me with a little bit of familiarity, and I was able to talk to people who have made the transition before. I got to know the ins and outs of how the college system works,” she said. “Without that, the transition would have been really hard.”

By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications 

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