From Iraq to Oxford
“When I first thought of the idea of going to UM-Flint, I was in a tent in Iraq.”
Cameron Waites was approaching the end of an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq as a medic in the US Army. As he anticipated the end of his military service, he began thinking about what might be next. He’d been in the Army for just over four years. He was ready for something new. He wanted to go back to school, and the University of Michigan-Flint crossed his mind.
Waites dreamed of being a doctor, so when he learned about the Health Sciences degree at UM-Flint, and the UM-Flint Honors Program, he thought it would be a good fit. He was originally from the Flint area, and was ready to come home.
He made some inquiries, and received encouragement from Dr. Maureen Thum of the Honors Scholar Program, and Suzanne Selig, departmental director of the Public Health and Health Science program. “They were supportive from the get-go,” said Waites. He enrolled at UM-Flint as a Junior-Senior Transfer student.
So less than two months after leaving Iraq, Waites found himself sitting in Great Books, one of the foundational courses of the Honors Program. He was 27, had “grown up a lot,” and was surrounded by a horde of young freshman. The contrast felt sharp.
He discovered the transition from military to student life was not easy. Though he didn’t have the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that plagues many veterans, Waites began to notice “obsessive checking behaviors” in himself as he sat in class, as well as in other situations. These behaviors, like assuming someone is going to break into your house, attack you, or somehow hurt you, are the things that keep soldiers alive in combat zones, but can lead to a lot of angst in the civilian world. Waites calls the period “awkward”, and credits the structure of the Honors Program with getting him through. “The way the program is built, reading books, engaged and thinking, working really hard. [It was] just what I needed,” he says.
Waites also credits the community of UM-Flint with helping him with the transition. “If there was a program or an event that I was interested in doing or wanted to be a part of, everyone was really supportive…It was the perfect sized place for me,” he said.
A major feature of the Honors Program at UM-Flint is the Senior Thesis and Off-Campus Study. Students develop a research project in their major, and complete a thesis. They connect with experts in their fields, and spend time off-campus, usually between their junior and senior years, learning with these experts as research assistants, interns, and apprentices. Waites developed a project about a specific kind of immune cell.
He applied to many medical research programs, and got into the Stanford Summer Research Program/Amgen Scholars Program. While he was working there, he learned about the Undergraduate Scholars Program offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In exchange for working in research, they offered scholarship support. Following his graduation, he would work for them the same number of years that they supported his education.
Waites was already receiving scholarship support from UM-Flint. For his first semester at UM-Flint, he had taken out student loans, been very frugal, and “maxed out” his work-study. After learning about the many scholarships available to students, he applied for everything he possibly could. He ended up receiving enough scholarship support to avoid taking out loans for the rest of his undergraduate career. “I would like the alumni and the University to know how much of a difference they actually make in people like myself, the experience that we have, just by being supportive and caring and taking an interest,” he said. “Some of the scholarships I received were funded primarily by alumni…I hope they know how important that is.” In addition to departmental and honors scholarships, Waites received the Ghassan and Manal Saab Signature Blue Service Scholarship. “That was really cool because they require that you do a service project,” he said.
Community service played a big role in Waites’ undergraduate experience at UM-Flint. He was instrumental in the creation of a group for student veterans, a project that found a lot of support at UM-Flint. The group began by screening a documentary and hosting mini-discussion in 2008, and by 2009, the University had created the Student Veteran’s Support Program, complete with a space to operate in. Waites left for a summer study in 2009, and when he returned, the SVSP’s space was already done. While he admits his involvement was important, he was more impressed with the work of his fellow vets and the administration. “I can’t believe how involved everyone else was,” he said.
Waites continues to be interested in veterans. He graduated in May 2011, and went to work in research at the NIH. In the fall of 2012, he will begin pursuing a Masters of Science in Neuroscience as a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford in the UK. The entire degree is accomplished in a one-year program.“I think it’s going to be really helpful, really cool,” he said. He hopes to do research about veterans and PTSD, noting that the UK has a much lower incidence of PTSD and suicide among veterans than the US.
He hasn’t given up on being a doctor. “At this point, it’s still a hope and a goal and a dream,” he said, “but I would really like to go to medical school and become a doctor and have the privilege of connecting with people. And also contributing in some way to research.” His hope is to be a “physician-scientist”, embracing both research and his desire to directly interact with people.
His eventual hope is to return to Michigan to live near his family. He is getting married soon, and intends to bring his wife and step-daughter with him to Oxford this fall.
Wherever he goes, Waites is taking his UM-Flint experience with him. “While I was at UM-Flint, I was so supported by everyone, that even when things were difficult, I knew it would work out,” he said. “Whenever I [find] myself with people who believe in me and push me to do better, it works… Even if I don’t have that at times, and I’m sure we all find ourselves in situations where it’s tough and no one’s on our side, I still know where I’m coming from.”