Student Commencement Speaker Promised Himself: ‘If I Get Out of Here, I’m Going to Get My Degree’

From combat in Syria to sunrise on Horsebarn Hill

David Crowe, a US Army veteran who will speak at the School of Business commencement ceremony, stands in front of the School of Business on the Storrs campus.

US Army veteran David Crowe will be the student speaker at the School of Business commencement ceremony (Nathan Oldham / UConn School of Business Photo).

It wasn’t until he was deployed with a U.S. Army armored brigade combat team in Syria, that UConn senior David Crowe realized how fortunate he is.

In Syria, he was tasked with patrolling, monitoring, and maintaining a major supply route against threats of aggression from Iran.

Countdown to Commencement word mark

“The first time I was on patrol, I got out of the vehicle to ‘clear a hill,’ ensuring there was no debris or enemies on the other side. I was in the open, with all my gear on, and that was the first time I thought, ‘This is a life-or-death situation.’ I’ll never forget that feeling,’’ he says.

“It was a huge experience for me in terms of growth, maturity, and thinking about my life,’’ says Crowe, a finance major. “I became appreciative for what I have and I decided to work harder toward my goals. In Syria I told myself, ‘If I get out of here, I’m going to get my degree.’’’

Crowe, 25, will be the student speaker at the School of Business commencement ceremony on May 7. His speech focuses on the unique experiences of the Class of 2022, particularly learning to live through a pandemic. Crowe believes the challenging and extraordinary event will enhance his classmates’ business and career success.

Helping People Is His Greatest Passion

Crowe grew up in Alabama and Chicago, completed high school in Michigan, and attended the University of Kansas for two years, majoring in petroleum engineering. After his sophomore year, he decided to join the Army as an infantryman.

“When I was deployed in the Middle East, I realized how much we take for granted as a first-world society, and how much luxury we have,’’ he says. “We turn the light switch on and we have power; we turn the faucet on and we have water. For many people throughout the world, that isn’t their reality.

“In Ukraine, most of the people have had their lives completely turned upside down,’’ he says. “Sure, here we are paying more for gas and food, but we can go to work, our lives aren’t threatened. We come home to our families at night.

“Looking at Ukraine, and how the population banded together to defend their country, I hope people realize why the military exists and have confidence in our abilities. We deter aggression and when it comes to defending the U.S., we’re here to do so. I hope people are proud of our military and what we do; and especially the willingness of so many to be away from their families, for so long, to serve their country.’’

My experience at UConn was vastly different than my earlier college experience because I was driven and dedicated. — David Crowe '22

Crowe, who has been a UConn student for three years, says he selected the university because of the strength of the School of Business, the Army ROTC program, and its excellent veterans’ benefits.

“It was a perfect mix for me,’’ he says. “I have to admit the cows on Horsebarn Hill sold me, because it felt like home. But I also loved the VA Association, and UConn’s military program director, Alyssa Kelleher, really guided my decision.’’

Crowe has no immediate family members serving in the military, but has an uncle and grandfather who served in the Marine Corps and a great uncle who was a paratrooper in WWII. He has a tattoo sleeve on his left arm commemorating that war. “In the military, we pay a lot of respect to those who came before us,’’ he says.

After graduation, Crowe plans on commissioning as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer in the Army, where he would lead teams that neutralize chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as well as improvised explosive devices.

“The job is both physically demanding and mentally challenging, which appealed to me,’’ he says. “Also EOD personnel tend to work in smaller elements and are very close-knit.’’

He will commit to six more years of service, and also hopes to earn two master’s degrees, one in military operational art and science, with a minor in nuclear deterrence studies, from the U.S. Air Force Academy, and a second degree, in finance, from another university.

While serving in the Connecticut Army Reserve National Guard during the pandemic, Crowe helped set up field hospitals in Danbury and Hartford and at several nursing homes. The mission involved setting up beds, securing supplies, and ensuring that wireless systems worked.

“I enjoyed that very much. It’s very cool to be able to make an impact. I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about the military,’’ he says. “Helping people is one of my greatest passions.’’

Preparing to Say Goodbye Is An Emotional Experience

Transitioning from military life to college was initially challenging, Crowe says.  Older than his peers, with more life experience, it took time for Crowe to adjust.

“I had to learn how to relax again,’’ he jokes. “My experience at UConn was vastly different than my earlier college experience because I was driven and dedicated.’’

As a man who has always been a bit shy, his friends were surprised that he applied to be the Commencement speaker.

“I think volunteering as the graduation speaker is the very least I can do to give something back to the university. I’m very appreciative of what UConn has given me,’’ he says. “When I started writing the speech, I started crying. It was a super overwhelming experience. I knew then it would be the best speech of my life.’’

In that speech, Crowe will quote novelist Ernest Hemingway and UConn women’s basketball Coach Geno Auriemma, but he will also credit his classmates who have survived the pandemic, one of the biggest jolts of their lifetimes. He predicts that, having overcome that hurdle, their careers will be extraordinary.

Crowe says there was never a time at UConn when he asked for help and was denied. “The quality of the education here is first-rate. I was never disappointed by anything that was taught, or by any professors,’’ he says. “I was always impressed by their backgrounds and yet they were all so humble.’’

He also enjoyed meeting diverse students from across the country and around the world. And he laughs at the notion that he is now at least a little bit of a New Englander.

“I always said I’d never live here because there’s no Southern charm. You get no waves hello from anyone on your way to an 8 a.m. class,’’ he says, laughing. “But you’ve got great, great, great food here. A hot lobster roll—ummm! It’s no match for cornbread and sweet tea, but it sure is good!’’

Advice From The Upper Ranks

When he graduates, Crowe will miss watching the sun rise over Horsebarn Hill, (but probably not the 12-mile runs in 12-degree temperatures for ROTC that preceded it); and playing hockey on the ponds in winter. He’ll miss the ROTC pranks, including taking photos of cadets who’ve nodded off in Hall Building. He’ll reminisce about running into Jonathan the Husky on his early morning walks, starting UConn’s mountaineering team, and leading the military color guard at basketball, football, and hockey games.

Crowe has some advice for those who are just starting their UConn journey.

“First and foremost, be extremely thankful to attend UConn and to study at the School of Business. Don’t take this opportunity for granted,’’ he says. “Take advantage of all the resources you have access to, from career planning to the writing center to the recreation center.’’

“Develop a diverse group of friends who will broaden your perspective,’’ he says. “Remember there’s a balance between school work and fun, but always makes sure you get your work done. And, lastly, be sure to document your time here.’’

“In the military, especially, no one likes to pull the camera out and take pictures. But do it,’’ he says. “Years later you’ll look at that picture and remember that basketball game. Definitely do it!’’