About 7,500 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 128th spring commencement this Saturday, May 21. Each graduate has a unique story. To celebrate the Class of 2011, we're highlighting 10 stories, profiling students who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.
When the second of the Word Trade Center's Twin Towers was falling on Sept. 11, 2001, Heidi Ritter, 29, swore an oath to serve her country in the Air Force.
That day, Ritter said she knew the experience she previously thought she'd have in the military would be dramatically different. But she said her family had taught her, "don't let fear get in the way of helping out where you can."
And from that moment on, as cliché as it may sound, she said the only constant in her life has been change.
Ritter juggled her undergraduate studies in nursing and ROTC at the University of Virginia with volunteer work abroad at orphanages. After she graduated in 2004, she became a second lieutenant stationed at the Lackland Air Force Base's Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio where she worked for the first time as a registered nurse.
In 2005, the Air Force deployed her to New Orleans hurricane Katrina had just hit. At the age of 23, Ritter assisted in setting up an emergency field hospital inside the New Orleans airport. For almost a month she slept on the floor or on cots at the airport and experienced what she said felt like caring for people in a third world country.
A few years later, she was deployed to Balad, Iraq. There she nursed American troops, coalition forces, Iraqi citizens (including women and children) and insurgents at a Level 1 Trauma Center. She experienced three mass-casualty events in five months. To relax, she taught yoga and swam at the pool on base. She couldn't use the high dive because of snipers.
After the experience, she still has this to say about it: "It was an amazingly diverse and beautiful place."
"I feel so grateful to my country because of the opportunities I've had," Ritter said. "I feel like I can be a better nurse now."
Ritter was still in Iraq when she applied to The University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing. Despite her vast and varied nursing experience, Ritter said she felt like she could benefit from more specialized nursing education.
She said she threw herself into her studies full time, joined academic organizations, developed a passion for teaching and continued volunteering, practicing yoga and writing poetry. Ritter is graduating this month with her master's degree in nursing as an adult clinical nurse specialist. She's in the Air Force's inactive reserves.
Whether Ritter chooses to care for veterans undergoing chemotherapy or further her education so she can pursue her dream of teaching, only one thing is certain: change is inevitable.