When defensive end Seamus Milligan takes to the Alumni Stadium field next weekend for the Homecoming football game against the York Lions, he’ll have the support of his team and coaches, his professors – and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
The third-year University of Guelph student is not only a sociology major and varsity football player, he’s also a member of the Army reserves – a triple-barrelled role that would ordinarily leave students like him feeling overwhelmed.
Thanks to a unique program at U of G called Serving Scholars, Milligan knows he has the support he needs to balance all three demanding roles.
The first program of its kind in Ontario, Serving Scholars provides special academic accommodations to students like Milligan who are enlisted in the reserves to ensure they can meet their military and academic duties and avoid scheduling conflicts.
For Milligan, who is training to be an artillery gunner and hopes to build a full-time career in the Army, Serving Scholars has been critical to helping him manage his schedule of studies and two kinds of training: military and athletic.
“Since I joined the reserves, there have been a few times when my school requirements have overlapped with either my football or my CAF training and that’s where Serving Scholars has been invaluable,” says Milligan.
“Dr. Walsh and the others help to articulate to my professors what I need, whether it’s moving around an assignment due date or whatnot, they bridge that gap for me.”
Program helps student-reservists balance military, academic duties
Though several universities tried to woo Milligan to their varsity teams, the 6’3 (1.9 metre) defensive line player went with the hometown university so many others in his family have chosen before him.
“Serving Scholars is just one of the many reasons that I’m glad I chose the University Guelph. It’s a really unique program and has just been so helpful,” he says.
Walsh, a Classics professor and director of the School of Languages and Literature, worked with the local Army regiment, the 11th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, and former student-reservist Alex Fekri to draft the academic provisions needed to help student-reservists balance their military and academic requirements.
That could mean rearranging an exam time for a student-reservist who is preparing for deployment or allowing them to register for classes early if they will be away in the summer training.
There are currently 27 students and staff in the Serving Scholars program, including two graduate students. Not every student-reservist will need to use the Serving Scholars provisions, but knowing they are there offers them assurance their two sets of duties can be accommodated, says Walsh.
“Our University president and the Registrar’s Office have been so supportive of the program. This past spring, we were able to have a student graduate early because they had to be deployed overseas. Another one crossed the convocation stage in uniform. That was such a proud moment. So, it’s these small accommodations that affirm to our student-reservists that they are valued.”
Reservists already make so many sacrifices to serve, Walsh adds, from physical stress to mental demands. “This is just a little acknowledgment of that sacrifice and a way to say thank you.”
Skills learned in military transferable to football
In Milligan’s case, he ran into a roadblock this past summer when he needed to complete a multi-week artillery training that was scheduled to overlap with football training camp.
“Training camp is a really intensive training week with everyone together all day and it’s a pretty important time for bonding with teammates,” he says. “I am on scholarship here and I need to meet the same standard of output as other players, but I also knew I needed to complete this training to get my gunner trade qualifications.”
Milligan approached Gryphon Football head coach Ryan Sheahan and was relieved to find he was happy to help.
“Seamus is an athlete with such exceptionally high character and work ethic,” says Sheahan. “So when he told us he’d found his passion in the military and wanted to serve his country, we knew we wanted to support him. Whenever a student-athlete has identified their life calling, it’s really our duty as coaches and educators to support them on that path. That’s what the university chapter is all about.”
Milligan has discovered that what he loves about playing varsity football is also what has drawn him to military life.
“The team aspect of the army, that siblinghood, I’ve always loved that in sport,” he says. “But I also love the challenge of it. I’ve already has some awesome experiences training in the reserves and what I’ve learned is that your body will give up before your mind. Even in the toughest conditions, you can control your reactions. And that is transferable to athletics.”
Coach Sheahan agrees that the valuable life lessons Milligan is learning in his military training are finding their way onto the field.
“He came back from that summer training so energized,” Sheahan says. “What he’s learning about the importance of discipline, of leadership and sacrifice, that’s exactly what we want in our athletes. Having him bring that back with him, that just makes us a better team.”
Gryphon Athletics communications
Dr. John Walsh