Indiana University Kokomo just happened to be in the right spot, offering the right degree programs.
Just before each started their senior year in high school, they reconnected on Facebook, renewing a friendship that began in a Minnesota elementary school. Aaron moved to Nebraska and his family was planning another move to Georgia. The two decided to find a college they could both attend, where she could study psychology, and he could earn a degree in informatics.
"IU Kokomo was in the middle, between Minnesota and Georgia, so we could meet each other halfway," she said. "It gave us the opportunity to continue our lives together."
They arrived on campus in August 2010, with the goal of graduating together in May 2014, and were married in July 2012. Great things are happening for them in 2014 — they're graduating, he is beginning his military career, and they are starting a family, expecting their first child in October.
"The goal of graduating together helped motivate me to keep going when I struggled, because I knew someone close to me was also working hard to reach that goal," he said. "Our time together here has given us time to grow together. We became a stronger couple by working through many situations that college students face, and we learned we don't have to face them alone."
During their time on campus, he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and the Army National Guard, missing one semester of classes to complete his basic training. Even with the missed semester, they've achieved their goal of graduating together. They will be among the 599 students receiving degrees at Commencement, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, May 13, in the IU Kokomo pavilion.
IU Kokomo was the right place for them, and not just because of geography.
"It really meant a lot to me that my professors knew me by name, and wanted to get to know me as a person, not only as a student or a number," said Michelle. "I had a small university feel, but with a large university education."
Aaron agreed the interaction with professors was important to him.
"Being here helped me become more worldly, through my education and from being involved with students and professors from around the globe," he said. "It was also important to me to have direct contact and guidance from professors."
Michelle, who is graduating with a degree in psychology, worried that Aaron's time away at basic training would mean they would not graduate together, and she appreciates his hard work to meet their goal.
They've both worked hard, each holding multiple jobs while going to school. Michelle worked on campus, in the Cole Fitness Center and as a scribe for another student, in addition to a job at Walgreens. She also was president of the folklore and urban legends club, and an officer in the psychology club.
Aaron worked as an information technology technician on campus, and at Walgreens, in addition to being a leader in the ROTC and serving in the National Guard.
He said it was helpful that each of them understood when there wasn't time to share a meal or spend time together, because of school or work.
"We both would rather spend time together, but it was nice to know she would understand when that was not possible," he said.
Aaron says his experiences at IU Kokomo prepared him for his military career.
"The small class sizes require you to take leadership roles, which have prepared me to become an Army officer," he said. "You also get more interaction with other students and with the professors. The one-on-one interaction with the professors also helped me understand the material better, and at a greater depth, than would have been possible at a larger school."
Their lives won't slow down after Commencement. Aaron plans to work four weeks as an instructor at the leadership development and assessment course for third-year ROTC cadets, and then will spend 16 weeks in Fort Gordon, Ga., for his basic officer leadership course, before moving to his first duty station in the Army.
For Michelle, that means likely moving two times before the end of the year — once near her due date, and once with a newborn. She's taking the move in stride.
"I'm a military wife, I have to get used to moving," she said.
She plans to incorporate their military experiences into her future studies, researching post-traumatic stress disorder as she earns a master's degree and Ph.D. in psychology.
"I wasn't originally sure what I wanted to do," she said. "When Aaron decided to go into the military, this seemed to be a good option. I'd like to work with military personnel and families of those deployed, redeployed, or returning from deployment. I want to help people.
"We started together, and we're finishing together."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.