WCU Cultivates Leaders, Thinkers & Doers
n September 11, 2001, WCU junior Chris Hollowood was up late working on a school project when the World Trade Center towers were hit. Soon after, the Air Force base he and his family lived on in Japan was put on lock down. “My dad was a base superintendent and when he left for his office, he said he didn’t know when he’d be back,” recalls Hollowood, who is now 33.
“The rest of us couldn’t leave the house for three days and it was a week before anyone was allowed off base. I don’t know if my younger brother and sister realized it, but I knew that our base was a prime target,” he says.
Hollowood had thought he might follow his parents into the military – his mother had served in the Army during Desert Storm – but 9/11 solidified everything. “At that moment, I knew that I needed to serve so that others didn’t have to,” he says.
Hollowood’s military career and eventual journey to West Chester, where he is now majoring in computer science, could be summed up the adage: Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned. But despite the significant challenges that Hollowood has faced, he’d be the first to tell you that even when plans go awry, life can turn out better than you ever imagined.
The first bump on the road came when he was an 18-year-old ROTC cadet at the University of Alabama studying mechanical engineering on a scholarship. A killer class led to a not-so-great grade and, soon after, the loss of that lucrative scholarship. But Hollowood knew he wanted to serve, so he dropped out of school and enlisted in the Air Force. He was deployed three times -- in 2009 and 2011 to Qatar and in 2012 to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with an Army unit, serving as a combat advisor.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what a combat advisor did when I volunteered to go,” he says.
Combat advisors work closely with foreign security forces and need to be wary of both insider threats as well as threats from enemy forces. It’s a dangerous and high-stress position that requires equal measures valor and diplomacy. Hollowood excelled at his work and was gratified he could contribute in this way.
But May of 2013, his life was turned upside down. His team came under fire on a routine mission and Hollowood had to leap off an armored vehicle. He escaped getting shot but sustained serious injuries in the fall, including a ruptured disk in his back. After emergency surgery in Germany and a long rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Hollowood returned to service. He was sent to Hurlbert Field in the Florida Panhandle to work in logistics and supply chain management.
Hollowood chafed at not being able to serve in a combat role. “I hit bottom when I was in Florida,” he says. “It was hard to know that others were deployed and I would not be able to serve in this way.”
Hollowood pulls out his phone and shows off photos of the two individuals who saw him through those dark days. The first image is of a slightly built brunette -- his wife of five years, Melanie Hollowood, née Rapino. They met in D.C. before he was injured, but it was during the endless weeks at Walter Reed that they knew they wanted to marry. He also shows off a photo of Lovely, an Alaskan Husky who became an emotional anchor and provided a physical boost, too. “A dog needs to be walked,” he says. “Even when I was in pain and didn’t want to move, Lovely got me going, for my own good.”
When Melanie couldn’t find work in her field in Florida – she has a Ph.D, in geography and was a census specialist in Washington – the couple opened a gym. They specialized in training injured veterans to help them gain control of their physical lives again. It’s something Hollowood can relate to – he had to have a second surgery, and to this day he contends with chronic nerve damage in his left leg.
Life was starting to look up in Florida, especially after the couple’s first child, Dominic, was born. But Hollowood still struggled with the fact that his injuries would always mean a different role in the military than he had envisioned.
So Chris and Melanie decided to scrap the old playbook, and started making new plans. Soon she secured a job with the Census Bureau in Philadelphia. Among its other advantages, this career relocation would allow the young family to be within driving distance of both sets of grandparents. It also would provide Chris the ability to go to school fulltime and earn a degree in computer science, a field that has always interested him.
When it came time to choose the right college, Chris turned to Melanie for advice. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geography at WCU and encouraged him to apply. Hollowood matriculated last fall and, thanks to credits transferred from an associate degree, expects to graduate in June 2021.
“Chris left an indelible impression upon me from our first meeting,” says Lillian Morrison, director of WCU’s Veterans Center. “I had no doubt that he would make a successful transition from the Air Force to WCU and had the leadership abilities to ensure his fellow student veterans do, as well.”
Hollowood’s days are busy as he juggles classwork and parenting. Soon life will get even busier – Melanie is expecting their second child in November. But he makes time to be involved on campus. He’s a member of the Computer Science and Programming Clubs and is president of the Student Veterans Group. He also serves as the liaison between the Veterans Center and the Twardowski Career Development Center.
“Chris is a leader, and that is clear in everything he does,” says Amber Pleasants, assistant director of the center. “He is continually exploring ways to improve the experience for student veterans on campus, from learning about resources to supporting them to attend events that may be outside of their comfort zone.”
Hollowood would like to work in the field of cybersecurity when he graduates, but for now he’s enjoying his new life as a college student. “West Chester has been amazing for me,” he says.
“I was very nervous about leaving the military after 11 years. I grew up in the military; it’s where I spent my entire life. But I couldn’t have had a better experience transitioning from a completely different world to West Chester. The staff, the students, Mrs. Morrison who takes such good care of us, the Veterans Center….there’s not enough good things I can say.”