Like 669 other students, Tyler Bee will receive his undergraduate degree Saturday at UW-Eau Claire.

But the 22-year-old Eau Claire North graduate’s journey to his college’s winter commencement ceremony was anything but traditional.

Not only did Bee graduate in 3½ years, but only two of those years were at UW-Eau Claire. He spent his three semesters after high school attending and playing golf at Carroll University in Waukesha before transferring to his hometown university.

Bee also spent most of his college career serving his country in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, meaning he squeezed a summer of basic training and one weekend a month and at least two weeks a year of additional training into an already jam-packed college schedule.

To test his time management skills even further, he spent 1½ months of his final spring semester in Thailand, where he mobilized for joint training with the Royal Thai Air Force at the same time he was enrolled in 15 credits at UW-Eau Claire.

Bee held a variety of civilian part-time jobs all through college and, just for fun, even hosted radio talk shows about rock music and sports on Blugold Radio Sunday.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Bee endured a personal struggle before finally coming out as gay to his family, friends and fellow service members.

So it’s no wonder that Bee, a business administration major and actuarial science minor, used the term “wild roller-coaster ride” before summing up his college experience with his usual positive attitude: “It was great.”

Family tradition

Bee didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for pursuing a military career.

His search started and ended in his own family.

“My great-grandfather served in World War II, my grandfather is a combat vet from Vietnam, my father and uncle both served in the Air Force, and my sister enlists next month in the Army,” Bee said, adding that his other great-grandpa, who died before Bee was born, also served in World War II.

The surviving family veterans maintain a family tradition of getting all four generations together around Memorial Day for photos in uniform. “I savor those chances,” Bee said.

Despite attending college and playing on a Carroll team that qualified for the NCAA Division III national golf championship tournament as a freshman, Bee said he somehow felt like he should be doing more with his life. He enlisted in the Air Force Reserve between his first two semesters and left for basic training two days after arriving home following his freshman year.

“I like the structure of the military and also the pride that goes with it,” said Bee, who serves in the 934th Airlift Wing, 96th Airlift Squadron at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station. “I guess it’s true that it runs in our blood, as they say.”

Bee likes the service enough that he volunteered for part-time Honor Guard duty during college and plans to perform that role at military funerals full time for a while after graduation.

He was introduced to the Honor Guard by serving alongside his grandpa, who carries out the duty to pay respects to his brothers in arms who were killed in Vietnam. “For me, it’s a chance to give back to those who served before me,” Bee said.

Looking ahead, he has applied to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where, if accepted, he would pursue another undergraduate degree and seek to become an officer. If Bee doesn’t get into the academy, he is scheduled to be deployed overseas next fall, likely somewhere in the Middle East.

Ultimately, he wants to be an officer and fly C-130 military transport airplanes.

“I love the reserves,” said Bee, who works in aviation management. “I do want to be a lifer and make it a career.”

Supportive faculty

Still, he acknowledged that finishing college in 3½ years and fulfilling all his military obligations was stressful at times, especially knowing there was always the possibility of having to drop everything and be deployed overseas on short notice. That almost happened twice during his college career, including two-thirds of the way through his fall 2017 semester when he scrambled to finish all kinds of school work early only to have an activation canceled at the last minute.

UW-Eau Claire’s policy is to leave accommodations for military students up to the discretion of professors, and Bee said teachers were extremely helpful when he was sent to Thailand after attending only the first day of spring semester classes this year.

Emily Elsner Twesme, his business communication instructor, said she is happy to work with students in the military.

“I recognize that it’s even more challenging for a student to have to leave their responsibilities and put themselves in harm’s way than it is for me to accommodate the absence,” Elsner Twesme said. “At the time Tyler was deployed, I was balancing teaching full time, being a full-time graduate student, along with my responsibilities at home of being a partner and a mom to two young kids. I completely understand the need for some special accommodations to make a pressing situation work with everything else going on in life.”

As the sister-in-law of a 20-year Air Force veteran who was deployed multiple times, Elsner Twesme said she can empathize with the many layers of complexity that military students face beyond the normal challenges of being a college student.

“I am grateful to the women and men who are actively protecting our country, and working with them to achieve their academic goals while they are serving is the least I can do,” said Elsner Twesme, who called Bee “an incredible human being” and added that she was impressed that he never lost his sense of humor or positive attitude even during the most stressful times of his college and military careers.

For his part, Bee’s official role during his mobilization involved authorizing flight plans and monitoring the credentials and flight hours of pilots, and he devoted a fair amount of his free time to completing all the reading and assignments he could for his UW-Eau Claire classes.

Opening up

On the way back from Thailand, Bee decided to open up to the world about his sexual orientation — something he had only revealed to a few close friends and family members in the months before the mobilization. In the midst of his Air Force comrades — and just seven years after it became official U.S. government policy to allow openly gay individuals to serve in the military — Bee revised a Facebook post about the revelation over and over on his cellphone before finally mustering the courage to post it, culminating a yearslong period of anxiety about how he would be accepted.

“I felt like it was me against the world,” said Bee, who now tries to reach out to others who might be going through the same ordeal. “You don’t want anybody else to have to go through anything like that if you can help.”

The good news for Bee personally is that his announcement was met with a wave of support that was both a relief and incredibly heartwarming.

Elsner Twesme recalled Bee telling her about doing schoolwork on a 14-hour leg of that same return trip from Thailand as the other troops filling the C-130 slept all around him.

“This story says so much about Tyler,” she said, “and I have no doubt that work ethic and tenacity is going to take Tyler places in the future.”