During his 12-year career with the U.S. Army, one of Casey Dunn’s mentors told him that “nobody misses you while you’re asleep.”
It’s something he’s taken to heart, be it through 5 a.m. wakeup calls for early morning workouts with Colorado State University’s ROTC program or during midnight study sessions at coffee shops long after he’s put his three kids to bed.
“I do these things late at night and in the early mornings because my family is what comes first, and I want to be there,” Dunn said. “I’ll make sure to see my kids off to school, be able to meet my wife for lunch, and be there for the school plays and family dinner, regardless of what else is going on for me.”
And Dunn has a lot going on.
He’s an active-duty staff sergeant, but is currently a cadet in CSU’s Army ROTC program as he completes his business administration degree with a minor in military science as part of the Army Green to Gold Active Duty Option Program, which gives enlisted soldiers the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree or two-year graduate program while earning commissions as Army officers.
Dunn said he sees this as an opportunity to become a mentor for younger soldiers at CSU and beyond, and he hopes his story can inspire others to take a similar plunge.
“A big feat is getting my degree, getting my commission,” he said, “but a bigger feat will see other people following the same steps as me, seeing others succeed in part because of the influence I’ve had on them.”
And because of his dedication to mentorship, the Army and his family, Dunn has been named one of only two 2021 American Council on Education Students of the Year in the nation. This honor is given to adult learners who have benefited from ACE’s military or workforce credit recommendations, and comes with a $1,000 scholarship.
“This national award is a big deal,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Tillman, who leads CSU’s Army ROTC program. “It really highlights the support that CSU is providing to the veteran community, and Casey’s work ethic and willingness to share his life experiences with everyone around him.”
A nontraditional path to a college education
A compilation of photos of Casey Dunn, his wife Jenessa and their three children: Owen, Lincoln and Addiline.
Back when he was in high school in Minnesota, Dunn said he was “the complete opposite of an honors student.”
“I did not get good grades, and my attendance was not stellar,” he said. “I even noticed that I was left off of my graduation pamphlet because I was that close to not graduating.”
A family friend who had been part of the Army recommended that he come over and talk to a recruiter. This ultimately changed the trajectory of his life.
Months after barely graduating high school, Dunn went to basic training, and began a career as a cavalry scout that’s taken him from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Fort Carson, Colorado, to his most recent post in Germany.
Dunn first met the woman who is now his wife in high school, but they didn’t become romantically involved until he was in the Army and returned to Minnesota during a break in training.
“I can attribute the Army to the success of my relationship and marriage; that was definitely a good look,” he said. “In high school, she didn’t see me in a super positive light, but the Army allowed me to come back as an adult, and it really changed me for the better.”
He said his wife is his rock and kids are his inspiration that has allowed him to further his career and now continue his education while raising two young boys and a girl.
“I didn’t have the best experience, and I didn’t have that many role models growing up,” Dunn said. “I want to be the best possible role model for my children, but more importantly, I want to see them grow up to be better than me and go on to accomplish greater things.”
Motivated by mentorship
Casey Dunn is part of a two-year program that allows him to complete his education while earning a commission as an Army officer.
Dunn said he and his wife fell in love with Colorado during his time stationed at Fort Carson, and that he chose CSU specifically because of its strong business and ROTC programs.
Since he’s been at CSU, he’s helped to mentor the younger students in ROTC through the Poudre Muskets, a drill team and tactics club that meets early in the morning or in the evenings three times a week.
“Since coming to the program, he’s been an all-around good cadet and gone the extra mile to work with the Poudre Muskets and share his experiences,” said Sgt. First Class Amran Moore, an instructor in CSU’s military science program. “He is a mentor to a lot of the members of the program by helping them on their journey to become future officers in the military.”
In a way, Dunn is doing this to pay it forward. When he began his military career at 18 years old, he wished he had someone to show him the ropes.
Now, he hopes to use his education to be that person for future generations in the Army and when he completes his service. It’s something he’s already done: While he was stationed in Germany, he motivated everyone he led to pursue some form of education, regardless of if they were 18-year-olds pursuing their first bachelor’s degrees or if they were completing credits toward a certificate program.
“When I’m leading a soldier, I’m also growing a person, and I think that’s really something I preached to my younger non-commissioned officers when I was in Germany, what we do starts and ends with people,” Dunn said.
People across CSU have taken notice of Dunn’s story. He was nominated for the ACE Student of the Year Award by Adult Learner and Veteran Services Director Ben Schrader and Tillman.
“A normal ROTC cadet’s life is pretty busy. They’re all full-time students with lots of commitments,” Tillman said. “For Casey, you add on that he’s a dad and a husband with a real-life house and groceries to buy and kids to take care of, it really highlights his maturity and all the life experience he’s gained from his career before CSU.”
President Joyce McConnell even reached out to Dunn and sent him a congratulatory email on the ACE Student of the Year honor.
“When I learned about Casey’s journey to and through higher education, I was just blown away by his fortitude and commitment, not just to his education at CSU but to his family and his fellow students,” she said. “I’m so proud to see his achievements recognized with the ACE Student of the Year Award and even more proud to know that he is a CSU Ram.”
For Dunn, the recognition isn’t about himself. Instead, it’s about inspiring others to take a non-traditional plunge in pursuing a higher education and to better themselves in the process, no matter how busy they are.
“Will it help inspire someone else to be a part of CSU, the Army ROTC program, or the ALVS program and that it’s possible to do this regardless of what’s happening in your life?” he said. “That’s my main focus, not the award.”