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Military Couple Finishes Criminal Justice Degrees, Inspires Daughters

Sal and Shelly Villa in front of their home and the text Sal & Shelly Villa '19, As & BS in Criminal Justice.

Shelly and Sal Villa first met when they were working as TSA agents in an airport. It was “love at first sight,” Shelly said. Ever since, the couple is always looking to share new adventures together, whether it's visiting national parks or raising their four daughters.

Now, they can add earning a college degree to their list. “It’s one of the many things that we get to do together,” Sal said.

Shelly and Sal Villa with their daughters Isabelle, Iris, Ivy and Irene.Both Shelly and Sal started college when they finished high school, but it wasn't the right time for them. Sal enlisted in the military 14 years ago, shortly after the couple got married and were starting a family.

The military isn't just a career. It's a lifestyle that affects the whole family. As an active-duty "mineman" in the U.S. Navy, Sal faces deployments and frequent trips with his command. When he's traveling, Shelly cares for their daughters – Isabelle, Iris, Ivy and Irene – all between 14- and 1-years-old, on her own.

A Criminal Justice Degree on Her Time

When Shelly’s father died 5 years ago, she knew she needed to finish what she started nearly 19 years ago. Going to college was a dream her father had for her, and something she wanted to do for herself. It would also put her in a position to better support her family if ever the need arises.

But between the demands of military life and raising a family, attending a brick-and-mortar school was out of the question. So, she applied for a scholarship to Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) through Operation Homefront

After Shelly was awarded a $5,000 scholarship to SNHU, which eventually became a full-tuition scholarship, she had the opportunity to live out her and her father’s dream. 

Military Couple Graduates Together: PATHS | Ep6

By attending school online, she could still be there for her daughters. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about babysitters or getting to campus or finding parking or anything that comes with going to a traditional school,” Shelly said. She was able to fit coursework in around her schedule, not the other way around. 

Shelly decided to pursue a BS in Criminal Justice online with a concentration in Criminology and recommends the program because of its array of classes. 

“I had never really thought about the juvenile court system before, and then I took the class for the juvenile system, and I said, ‘hey, this is something that I’m actually really interested in,’” she said. Now, she wants to pursue a career in this field.

Even when she had challenging assignments, Shelly was met by encouraging instructors who would set her in the right direction. “Everybody’s so caring. Everybody wants to see you accomplish things. They want to see you finish,” she said. 

Planning for Post-Service

As Shelly edged closer to the end of her program, Sal was inspired to finish his. 

He started thinking about his post-service plan – a career in law enforcement – and knows he’d have a better chance of employment if he went back to school. “Having my bachelor’s degree by the time I retire from active duty will definitely put me ahead of the game,” Sal said.

He wants to be a police officer, and his classes are introducing him to criminology and the sociology aspect of the criminal justice system. He's challenged to study the mind and think about how to minimize the number of criminals in society. 

Sal began his degree in preparation for post-military goals, but it also had an immediate effect on his work with the military. The writing skills he's strengthening are improving the reports and briefs he writes.  

Sal Villa working on his laptop while his daughter looks on.Having an academic advisor with a military background was a perk for the Villas. Brendan Morrison understood the challenges they faced and was able to support them in any way he could.

“It was just great having an advisor that is military-friendly,” Sal said. When he discovered the immediate affects a degree would have on his career, Morrison helped him switch to the AS in Criminal Justice program with a plan to complete his BS next.

Plus, at SNHU, he could transfer military education to college credits, helping him finish even faster. 

Being active-duty, Sal frequently travels – sometimes to places without internet access. When this happens, he tries to get ahead in his classwork beforehand, but he said his instructors have also been understanding of his situation.

When he submitted the final assignment of his associate’s degree, accomplishment washed over him. “All of a sudden, you come to that moment of truth. It’s like, this is really going to happen. This is my last assignment, and then I’m going to get my degree,” he said.

Inspiring Their Daughters, Celebrating Together

Though getting work done can be difficult with four children in the room, the Villas made sure to take their daughters along for the journey.

They did homework as a family and had conversations about what they were learning, and the girls recognized the importance of their parent's commitment. 

"They have been part of the whole process," Shelly said, so it only made sense to make Commencement a family affair. 

Shelly and Sal Villa wearing their cap and gowns, clapping and cheering at SNHU's commencement.On Mother’s Day Weekend, the Villa family flew cross-country from San Diego to Manchester, New Hampshire, to celebrate Shelly and Sal's accomplishments. 

“I’m happy that they got to graduate together and that they took the time to go back to college,” Isabelle, 14, said.

During this milestone, Shelly couldn't help but think about how much her father would have loved to be there, waving and cheering with his granddaughters. “Hearing mine and Sal’s name, I could just imagine – I could see his face where he would have just wiped away that little bit of tear,” she said.

For Shelly and Sal, supporting and motivating one another is a priority, so it's only natural they'd see each other through their degree pursuits. The bonus is they showed their daughters the importance of education along the way.

“They’re already talking about when they’re going to come back (to New Hampshire) and see us get our next degrees and for them to get their degrees so they can be like mom and dad,” Sal said. 

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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