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Basic Training

The navy prepared him for Tufts. A new scholarship opened the door.

When Keith Wasserboehr, A16, was working thirteen-hour shifts as a U.S. Navy aviation mechanic in Bahrain, German film studies was the last thing on his mind. But that class turned out to be one of his favorites during his first semester as an undergraduate at Tufts. At twenty-six, he’s embarking on the prerequisites for a psychology major, hoping one day to work with adolescents as a therapist. Wasserboehr is following this dream thanks to a new scholarship created for people with military experience or military ambitions: the Tufts ROTC/Veterans Scholarship.

Before his stint in the navy, few would have seen Wasserboehr as college material. Having endured what he calls a “really tough childhood” in Reading, Massachusetts, he struggled in high school. “I was an awful student—seventh worst in my graduating class,” he says. He enlisted two months out of school.

After basic training in the Great Lakes, he was assigned to the naval air station on Whidbey Island in Washington. His five years on active duty included deployments in Qatar and Bahrain. “I was never on a ship, which is odd for being in the Navy,” he says, “but I worked on a plane that was too big to fit on ships”—the P3 Orion, a four-engine reconnaissance aircraft with a hundred-foot wingspan. Keeping the planes airworthy was a huge responsibility. “The pressure on the ground crew was intense,” Wasserboehr says. “We used to say we had eight days on, zero days off.”

When he left the navy, with the rank of petty officer third class, a company in Connecticut offered him an aviation mechanic position, which he seriously considered taking. “I loved being an aviation mechanic,” he says. “I like working with my hands, and I loved the camaraderie.” But he had injured his back in the service and had degenerative disc disease. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. His wife talked him into going back to school.

He enrolled in Middlesex Community College, outside of Boston, where a counselor suggested he transfer to Tufts. The university, he says, had “never been on my radar screen.” But he applied and got in.

The ROTC/Veterans Scholarship that supports Wasserboehr was established in May 2014 with contributions from more than seventy Tufts alumni. One of those donors is attorney Gregory Arabian, A54, who rose from Tufts ROTC and rose to the rank of major in the U.S. Air Force. He says Wasserboehr is just the kind of student he had in mind when he supported Tufts’ efforts to raise money for the scholarship.

Arabian served in the Air Force from 1954 into the 1980s and helped establish AMVETS Post 2008, in Belmont, Massachusetts, of which he is commander. He has volunteered with the Veterans History Project, which documents veterans’ stories for the Library of Congress. These activities “brought me in contact with many veterans from all walks of life—and brought me closer to Tufts,” he says.

Arabian’s enthusiasm for Tufts had “badly waned” during the Vietnam era, when student protests caused the closure of ROTC units. “We had to reverse this,” he says. “I became one of a handful of Tufts graduates who formed Advocates for Tufts ROTC.” Without the ROTC/Veterans Scholarship, attending Tufts full time would not have been possible, Wasserboehr says. “I want to thank the donors, both for supporting Tufts and supporting veterans. In some places we are undersupported, but not here. It means a lot to me and to other vets.”

Arabian believes veterans have much to offer the university. “I admire those who volunteer for service and go through the rigors of training,” he says. These days Wasserboehr is more concerned with the rigors of academia. “The kids here are so driven,” he says. “Though I have more worldly experience than they do, it doesn’t give me a leg up at all. But I bring a different perspective.”