Four years ago, Petty Officer Third Class Ben Ricker '23 was working on a computer screen in the attack center of a nuclear powered fast attack submarine.
A fire control technician on the USS Olympia, based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Ricker worked for five years behind an array of computer screens on the electronic systems that maintained the sub’s torpedoes and missiles, often spending 24 hours awake at a time.
Now, he’s behind the desk of a Stevens Hall computer lab, nearly three years into a Longwood University computer science degree that will once again have him behind computer screens, only this time as a software engineer.
After serving in the Navy, I have such a different perspective on the value of an education and how seriously I need to approach my work.Petty Officer Third Class Ben Ricker '23 Tweet This
It’s been a circuitous and unlikely path to end up at the university just a few miles from his hometown of Cumberland—and one that a younger Ricker would have never imagined for himself.
“I don’t think I could have gone to college straight out of high school,” he said. “But after serving in the Navy, I have such a different perspective on the value of an education and how seriously I need to approach my work. That wasn’t there when I was 18 years old.”
Now 27 years old and in his junior year, Ricker has found not only success in the classroom, but friendship in a group of fellow students who are also veterans who get together to swap stories and find camaraderie in their shared experience. Those students come together with the support of 21-year Marine Corps veteran Jim Wiecking, Longwood’s research and academic initiatives program administrator and military student services liaison.
That formal role was initiated in 2018 when President W. Taylor Reveley IV asked Dr. John Miller, associate professor of early American literature and Coast Guard reservist, to examine areas where Longwood could improve students’ transition from uniform to classroom.
Those efforts, which involve dozens of faculty and staff across campus, have culminated in Longwood’s being recognized as the top-ranked Virginia university on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges for Veterans in the South.
The computer science faculty are so supportive of me and all of my classmates. This is a tough major, and it takes a little while for someone with a military background to adjust to life as a college student. But they’ve been there the entire time, ready to help me understand a tricky concept or just talk about life and opportunities after college.Petty Officer Third Class Ben Ricker '23
“It's been great to get to know other veterans,” Ricker said. “There’s even a freshman student who’s also a computer science major so I’ve been able to sort of help him out with some assignments. I appreciate that Longwood encourages us to get together and have our own sort of community.”
As a child, Ricker dreamed of being in the military, drawn to stories of Marines and Rangers who served their country. He planned to enlist in the Army when he was old enough, but a broken collarbone derailed plans for a year.
When it was finally time to enlist, it was no ordinary trip to the recruitment office. Ricker went with a friend whose father happened to be a submariner.
“He had told us all of these stories from being on a submarine, and my friend decided halfway to the recruitment office that he was going to join the Navy instead of the Army,” said Ricker. “I thought I’d like to know someone in the service, so I chose the Navy too.”
From there it was boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, and accession training (commonly known as A School) at the naval submarine base in Connecticut, before he was sent to Hawaii. His sub, the Olympia, had just deployed so the young fire control technician was choppered out to his ship, less than a year after signing up for the Navy.
“Life on a submarine is different than anything I’d ever experienced,” he said. “We had no set patrol schedule—many times we’d be out underwater for a few weeks, then back in port for a weekend or so. Then we’d get the call to go back out again. It’s very different.”
Five years later, in November 2018, he was headed back home to Virginia with new plans: a college degree and a job on dry land.
Choosing a college was easy—he grew up just down the road from Longwood and wanted to be close to his family and support system at home. And when he met the computer science professors, it sealed the deal for the 24-year-old freshman.
“The computer science faculty are so supportive of me and all of my classmates,” he said. “This is a tough major, and it takes a little while for someone with a military background to adjust to life as a college student. But they’ve been there the entire time, ready to help me understand a tricky concept or just talk about life and opportunities after college.”