Non-traditional students comprise a vital and intriguing role at Maryville College. Through their life experiences, they are able to contribute something truly special to the MC community. One such person is Morgan “Mo” Stepp, a senior environmental studies major. MC is not the first college that Stepp has attended. In fact, MC is technically Stepp’s fourth college experience. Stepp entered Lee University, a private Christian college in Cleveland, Tenn., as a student straight out of high school.
“You know that guy in your CMP 120 class who you just know isn’t going to make it?” Stepp said. “That was me. I just wasn’t ready for college when I was 18.” After spending a semester there, Stepp left Lee University. He also attended two state universities before quitting college to work for his father, an arborist. Working with his father revealed to Stepp that he had an interest in the outdoors, which would later lead him to major in environmental studies. He hoped to be employed by a federal agency handling national parks.
“I’m a woodsman. If it gets me outside, I’m happy,” Stepp said. When Stepp returned to Johnson City, Tenn., to work for his father, he also met his future wife, Jessica, while working a second job cutting leather for recliners. Stepp and Jessica dated for six years before deciding to get married. “I’m old-fashioned in that way,” Stepp said. “I didn’t feel like I should get married until I could support Jessica financially and give her everything that she deserves.” Stepp’s relationship with Jessica was one of the driving forces that convinced Stepp to enlist in the Coast Guard, since he felt that it was a stable job that would provide a steady source of income. Stepp’s decision to enlist was not an original one; all five branches of the military are represented in his family. However, Stepp was the first person in his family to enlist in the Coast Guard.
“I guess that makes it at least a little bit original,” Stepp said. Stepp said that he was drawn to the Coast Guard because of his interest in the environment, as well as the fact that members of the Coast Guard are always busy using their training for various missions, such as civilian law enforcement. After Sept. 11, 2001, a new G.I. bill was created that allowed any person who spent three years of active duty in the military after that date to receive significant scholarships to attend college. After learning about the tools the military had given him to help receive an education, Stepp began to reconsider college.
“I knew what kind of college I was looking for from my other experiences. I wanted a small, liberal arts college,” Stepp said. Stepp was immediately drawn to MC when he began to look at colleges he would consider attending. “My first choice was Maryville,” Stepp said. “I grew up coming to the Smoky Mountains. I must have passed this college a hundred times.” Stepp said that he liked MC because of the campus’ beauty, as well as its commitment to environmental awareness and making progress in areas like sustainability.
MC also made itself known as a college that was highly interested in gaining students through the new G.I. bill. “I was on the Maryville College website searching, when I’d just started to look for a college, and right across the top of the screen was a banner that was talking about the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship,” Stepp said. “I was like, ‘It’s a sign.’” The maximum amount of money that the G.I. bill gives to a member of the military per academic year is $17,500, which is not enough to cover the cost of attending MC. However, Stepp discovered upon applying that out of all private, liberal arts colleges in Tennessee, MC gives the most to members of the military
. Stepp began attending MC in the spring of 2010. He quickly became involved on campus in several organizations. He worked as a peer mentor and also became an employee at Mountain Challenge. “One of the lessons I learned is that if you don’t have something to integrate you into the student body, you’re not going to be as successful,” Stepp said. “It’s hard to be an island.” While a student, Stepp was also dealing with the possibility that he would be deployed to the Middle East. As a coxswain, the probability of Stepp being deployed was high.
In the middle of the academic school year of 2011-2012, Stepp received the news that he would have to leave MC to spend nine months in the Middle East, protecting supplies in and out of military ports. As a man who loves the mountains and trees of Tennessee, Stepp was not thrilled with his experiences living in the Middle East. “Tennessee’s so green and beautiful,” he said. “There, everything is just brown. No hills, no mountains. Barely any trees.”
When Stepp’s friends at Mountain Challenge and MC4MF (Maryville College for Military Families) heard about Stepp’s deployment, they tried to make sure that he felt appreciated and missed on campus. Mountain Challenge hosted a send-off party for Stepp, and also sent him a package containing a Redskins flag that they all signed. MC4MF hosted a letter-writing event and also sent Stepp a package. Katie Grace, MC senior and president of MC4MF, said that she was happy to have been able to remind Stepp of the support he has. “He’s Maryville College family,” Grace said. “If that’s your family, you take care of them.
We wanted to show him it’s not just the people he was working with. Other students and faculty are behind him all the way.” Stepp said that he plans to spend the next semester getting readjusted to the college and enjoying the beautiful Tennessee weather. “I’m really glad to be back,” Stepp said. “I’m going to make the most of it.”