A commitment to lifelong learning inspires a poignant moment for a proud military family
When Gunnery Sgt. Steven Christian enrolled at Wilmington University to earn a Master of Science degree in Cybersecurity with a concentration in Supervisory Controls and Data Acquisition (SCADA), he did so partly for his father and partly for himself.
His father, Petty Officer First Class Lowell Seymour Christian, was his hero. “He was an avid reader, intellectually gifted, and an expert in his field,” Steven says. “He always taught me the importance of education. So, I wanted to make him proud and somehow match his level of intellect. And he loved Wilmington University.”
After 20 years of active-duty service, Lowell had retired and enrolled at WilmU to study finance for his bachelor’s degree. “My father had every intention to immediately enroll in a master’s program.”
But he never got the chance. Lowell suffered a fatal heart attack before he could enroll in his graduate program. Steven was studying at Tuskegee University at the time. “When my dad died in 2005, I was 18. My first official act as an adult was to bury him.”
He withdrew from Tuskegee and joined the Marine Corps “to continue the lineage,” he says. Throughout multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Steven chipped away at his education, enrolling in nine universities and colleges, and taking courses non-stop. “When you’re on active duty,” he says, “you’re challenged with scheduling and finding a college that understands your situation.”
[My father] always taught me the importance of education. So, I wanted to make him proud and somehow match his level of intellect. And he loved Wilmington University.” — Steven Christian
Then he remembered his father’s alma mater. “I was able to study 100% online at WilmU,” says Steven, who is stationed in Texas and working in cybersecurity. “I had attended enough schools to know that I wanted to be academically challenged by an institution that was respected. In terms of the SCADA concentration, I have not seen a better program anywhere else — and I did my research. The professors genuinely cared and provided really cathartic feedback — every one of them. I never felt that anywhere but at WilmU.” (For the non-tech folks among us, SCADA is largely about critical infrastructure. “ICS and SCADA provide systems controls for dams, oil and gas systems, electrical grids and water systems,” says James Fraley, chair of WilmU’s Master’s Cybersecurity program. “This also includes things like the control systems for nuclear power plants, utilities, power distribution and systems.”)
Steven was set to graduate in May of 2022, but something was missing. During his time at WilmU, he started thinking about the many courses Lowell had taken and hoped it might be possible for his father to receive his degree posthumously. He wondered if both their degrees could be awarded on the same day — at the same ceremony.
Not surprisingly, a team of caring WilmU colleagues made it happen.
“It was a privilege to honor Mr. Christian, who proudly served our country,” says Wilmington University President Dr. LaVerne Harmon. “We are equally proud of his son, Gunnery Sgt. Steven Christian, who maintained his coursework while also serving in the military. Steven is a passionate ambassador of Wilmington University. We are humbled by his kind words, and, like his father, his belief in lifelong learning.”
The night before commencement, the family had flown into Philadelphia to attend the ceremony at Wilmington’s Chase Center on the Riverfront, where Steven’s sister, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jennifer Christian, accepted her father’s diploma, and Steven followed her to accept his. The next day, they drove to Calverton National Cemetery in New York and conferred Lowell with his degree.
“I had the program with his name and my name in it, a copy of my thesis, and the pen they gave me at commencement,” Steven says. “I buried it at his gravestone.”
That was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Never mind his wartime service, including the time he and three other Marines jumped off a truck on a highway near Pohang, South Korea, to save a man trapped inside a smoking, wrecked vehicle.
“My father loved his children and service to the Navy, but his education was the greatest thing he felt he had ever done,” Steven says. “He didn’t get to live that out, so for my sister and I to finish it for him and take it to him, that was my entire life.”