In 2002, Josh Hersl showed up for his freshman year at Penn State University at the massive University Park campus along with over 41,000 other undergraduate students. For the 18-year-old, it was the first time living away from home and he reveled in his newfound freedom.
Giving In To Temptations
For the first time in his life, Josh was free to do what he pleased, and like many new college students, he focused more time on his social life than his academic career. And when his grades started to suffer because of his partying, no 1 was there to chastise him…
Too Much Fun
“I had a lot of fun during my first experience here. Maybe too much fun. I took advantage of the social activities that Happy Valley had to offer rather than focusing on my education. As a result, my grades suffered,” Josh admitted about the wasted opportunity
Over the next 3 years, Josh’s grades continued to plummet as he prioritized partying and his social life above his grades. Meanwhile, Josh’s father was back home working as hard as possible to make enough money to send him and his sister could go to college…
A College Drop-Out
“I decided to leave Penn State after three years without a degree,” Josh explained. When he arrived home to Hanover Pennsylvania, his father, who had been working occasional odd jobs on top of his 2 jobs to afford college tuition for his kids, welcomed him home without question.
Overwhelmed With Guilt
His parents didn’t yell or punish him when he dropped out of school, but Josh was punishing himself enough for letting his family down with his ungrateful behavior. He felt horribly guilty for wasting his parents’ money and for squandering such an important opportunity…
Time To Grow Up
Shortly after dropping out and returning home, Josh started thinking about what he was going to do with his life now that he wasn’t going to earn a degree. He knew he needed to grow up and think about his future, so he decided to join the army and become a soldier, which was 1 of his childhood dreams.
A New Challenge
“Sept. 11 was still pretty fresh in everyone’s minds. I believed that I could serve my country while also getting back my sense of responsibility,” Josh said about his thought process before enlisting. “I knew I needed to grow up, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could take on a challenge…”
The 1st Tour Of Duty
So in May 2004, Josh enlisted and started training to be a soldier in the United States Army. Once he was finished with his training, he said goodbye to his family and was deployed to Iraq for his 1st tour of duty, which was supposed last at least a year.
5 Months Later
Unfortunately, however, Josh only lasted a few months. During his 5th month of deployment in Iraq, he was badly injured and was sent home to recover after an enemy truck full of bombs was detonated and exploded near his station…
Road To Recovery
As a result of the blast, Josh’s body was badly burned and sustained severe shrapnel injuries, which required multiple surgeries and skin grafts to save his life. Once he was back on American soil, Josh underwent months of physical therapy in order to make a full recovery.
At the time, he was offered medical retirement and his traumatized family tried to convince him to take it. However, Josh was determined to get back to Iraq with his unit. To others, it seemed like an insane decision, but for Josh, it was just something he needed to do…
Finishing What He Started
Josh didn’t expect anyone to understand, but after dropping out of college, he wanted to finally complete something that he started. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could handle it, and honestly I wanted to finish what I had started,” Josh explained.
So when Josh was fully recovered and deemed fit to serve, he was sent back to Iraq for active duty. Josh successfully completed his 1st tour of duty, and after that, he was sent for another tour in Afghanistan. According to Josh, he never wanted to end his military career, but life had other plans…
A Battle Back Home
Back at home, Josh’s father was taking part in his own battle for his life. He had been diagnosed with cancer in early 2014, and when Josh was notified of his father’s condition, he knew where he needed to be, which was at home caring for his dad before he passed away shortly before the end of 2014.
Back To School
Josh, who had been honorably discharged and awarded the Purple Heart, was once again questioning what he would do with his life. In honor of his late father, Josh decided he had to go back to Penn State University and finish was he started over a decade ago. “I always regretted not earning my degree. I blew my first chance, but my father taught me many lessons about hard work and dedication. I owed it to him to earn my degree…”
Never Looking Back
“Reinventing yourself in your 30s is just as scary as moving away from home and attending college for the first time at age 18,” Josh said about his return to college in 2015 to earn an associate degree in forest technology. “Once I got started, I didn’t look back.”
Following His Dreams
This time around, however, Josh didn’t fool around. He managed to graduate from the program with a 3.9-grade point average. But Josh didn’t stop there. With his family’s encouragement, he decided to go back and earn his bachelor’s degree back at Penn State’s main University Park campus. “When I was little, I dreamed of being a soldier and a lawyer,” Josh said. “I thought I blew my chance years ago, but because of the lessons I have learned, I won’t be blowing this chance. I accomplished the first dream, and though it has taken me awhile, I am getting closer to reaching the second…
The Next Step
Josh, now 35 years old, earned a 3.8 GPA while also working as a forest technician, a research technician, and an undergraduate research assistant. Now, he had plans on continuing his education to become an environmental attorney. Good laws can make a real difference in people’s lives. I want to play a role in protecting the environment to make sure our natural resources are used in a way that keeps them here forever. I can help do that as an environmental attorney.”
The Only Regret
After preparing for graduation and applying for law school, Josh is proud of how far he has come today and has realized that all the setbacks made him more resilient and determined to accomplish his dreams. The only thing he regrets is that his dad here witnessing it all. “But I know he’s with me in spirit, and that he’s proud,” Josh said.