Saturday, April 13, 2024

From Soldier to Scholar

By the time Bernard Harrigan, 46, walked into his first class at Florida Atlantic University, the swell of nerves brought on by going to school and seeing a room full of students half his age had long since passed. Having two years of college experience at Palm Beach State College under his belt, he entered FAU singularly focused, intent on making the connections that would help him achieve his goal of creating a more equitable and sustainable Florida.

If you would have told Harrigan a few years ago when he was working odd jobs just to make ends meet that he would be a two-time national scholarship winner, or that he would be selected to represent the state of Florida for the All-USA Academic Team, he’d probably say you’ve got the wrong guy. Harrigan’s dream of pursuing higher education seemed trapped in 1999, after getting out of the military and realizing the benefits from the GI Bill were only a drop in the bucket of what he needed to cover the cost of his education. The years passed as he drifted between jobs, which were limited without a degree as well as from a back injury sustained during his military service. But as Harrigan prepares to graduate from FAU with his bachelor’s degree in 2023, he can’t help but think those aimless years of struggling were for the best.

“Life is never really a smooth road,” says Harrigan, “but I’m thankful for that though too, because I had an opportunity to kind of take some time and really learn about myself.”

Harrigan’s journey from soldier to scholar took years to finally manifest, but the credit, he says, doesn’t belong to him. “It wasn’t until I met my wife that I was able to really find the ways to be able to get the education I wanted to have,” says Harrigan, who first met his wife, Elizabeth, while he was working front-desk sales for a local gym. “She is the catalyst that has caused all the change in my life.”

Harrigan also credits his wife for igniting his passion for the environment. Elizabeth was working at The Reef Institute in West Palm at the time, an organization dedicated to restoring Florida’s reef systems. Harrigan spent his free time volunteering at the institute for a year before landing a position as the organization’s outreach coordinator. During his time working at the institute, Harrigan developed a sense of the intersection between social equity and environmentalism while overseeing an internship program for inner-city kids.

“These high schoolers had never even seen a fish,” says Harrigan, who realized that any environmental initiative is meaningless if those less privileged can’t participate. With this realization came clarity for what he would finally decide to focus his education on, and he enrolled at Palm Beach State College, where he earned his associate’s degree before transferring to FAU.

“I started out really nervous about going to school after so many years,” says Harrigan, but that those years actually proved beneficial. “Because of the time I’ve spent out in the real world, I had really no inhibitions about saying things and doing things and being totally wrong in front of everyone and not caring, because that’s what college is all about.”

While at FAU, Harrigan was able to combine his dual passions of environmental justice and social change into a bachelor’s degree, and made FAU history when he became the university’s first student to earn the Udall Scholarship, which is awarded for demonstrating a commitment to causes related to First Nations and the environment. But for Harrigan, his work is just getting started.

After graduation, Harrigan plans to help businesses and governments develop committees that can ensure sustainable practices come to fruition. The process will start at the local level, but he hopes to eventually make it to D.C. As for the possibility of running for public office, Harrigan doesn’t rule it out. But for now, his focus is solely on preserving the environment for future generations.

“I just want to make sure that all kids, not just my own, have a future where there are seagulls, fish and squirrels, and the things that I grew up watching and enjoying.”

This article is from the February 2023 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Tyler Childress
Tyler Childress
Tyler is the Web Editor and a contributing writer for Boca Raton magazine. He writes about food, entertainment and issues affecting South Florida. Send story tips to tyler@bocamag.com.

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