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Domnic Barnes retired from the United States Army after 27 years of service. Before his military career began, Dominic was a child at Heartland Head Start in Bloomington, Illinois, in the early 1970s. Dominic believes those early lessons in leadership, responsibility, and learning to share and play with a diverse group of classmates made a lasting impression on him.

"It's where I learned, even as a really young person, about leadership at its most basic levels. Considering where my life took me, 27 years in the Army and in leadership - social interaction with people that are from different backgrounds is very important."

Head Start was also the first step for Dominic in a long, unconventional educational journey, culminating in a Ph.D. in Communication Leadership at Kansas State University. But it wasn't too long ago that he completed an associates degree nearly 20 years after finishing high school.

Military Career to Lifelong Learner

After graduating from high school, Dominic enrolled at Illinois State University. In his second year he decided it wasn't a good fit and enlisted in the Army Reserve. He was called to active duty in 1991 and Dominic and his wife moved from bases in North Carolina and Hawaii, to Bosnia, then on to Texas, welcoming their son along the way.

During that time, Dominic's wife was working towards a bachelor's degree in English at Texas Tech University. Inspired, Dominic decided it was a good time for him to go back to school, too.

"In 1999, I started taking classes at Thomas Edison State University because of the eArmyU program, which provided a free laptop, books, and access to the internet."

Dominic continued his studies over the next eleven years, taking a class or two at a time through his years as a recruiter in Texas, a move to Kansas, and two deployments to Iraq.

"I deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004, graduated with my associate's degree in 2005, went back to Iraq from 2007 to 2008, and then came back and continued. Then I came down on orders for Korea, and at that time my son was a high school junior, so we decided I would just go to Korea alone for a year and come back. While I was in Korea, I finished my bachelors degree, and that was in 2010, so it took me a while!"

Masters Work in Modern Languages

When Dominic returned from his final deployment in South Korea, he began a masters degree at Kansas State. This degree is in modern languages with a focus on teaching English as a second language - inspired by his time overseas and a friend who was teaching English in the community where they were stationed. Dominic also completed two graduate certificates.

"One is in academic advising, which is directly related to what I do in my job. And the other one is in social justice education. That certificate really goes all the way back to Head Start. With hindsight and a lot of reflection over the years, I've realized what Head Start was and what it meant to me as this first step in the stairway."

Tying Life Experiences Together in Service to Others

Today, Dominic is both a Ph.D. student and a staff member at Kansas State University. These pursuits tie together his military career as well as his passion for service to country and to others. Dominic works as the university's Military Student Services Coordinator, supporting anyone from active duty service members, to veterans, to children and spouses of service members as they navigate the higher education environment.

"Most of the students that I talk to are first generation students coming from underprivileged backgrounds, no access to family members who have gone to school before, no idea what a semester is, what a credit hour is, tuition, financial aid... Fortunately I came through that process. I learned it the same way they're learning it, so my personal experience plays a lot into what I do for the next generation."

The focus of Dominic's Ph.D. similarly applies his knowledge of what it's like to enter the world of higher education from a nontraditional background. He hopes his personal experience and his research will help to improve the transition for military connected students by looking at how both institutions of higher learning and military institutions can improve their practices.

"My goal is to study and improve the transitional process for military families or the military community when they separate from the service and they go into a higher education environment."

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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