Her fingers gracefully danced across the keyboard of a baby grand piano as Bemidji State University student Kathryn Morrill played from heart the first movement of a Beethoven Sonata.
Morrill will graduate Magna Cum Laude this Friday with a degree in piano performance and pedagogy (teaching). Next month she will serve with the U.S. Air Force on her second deployment to Iraq.
Originally from Le Sueur, Minn., Morrill has had a unique college experience at BSU. She has been a fulltime student and currently serves as a Senior Airman in the U.S. Air Force. She said her unique combination of music and military has given her confidence and perseverance.
Music has always been a part of Morrill's life. She holds it near and dear to her heart.
"Music means so much to me," Morrill said. "Growing up, I used the piano as an outlet for my frustrations. My mom would say she could always tell what kind of mood I was in when I played."
After graduating from high school in 2005, Morrill received a four-year scholarship to BSU for her musical talents. Morrill said she came to BSU because she connected with faculty and staff.
"I liked the size of the campus and the music department," she said. "It was small enough where you could have really good relationships with all of your teachers."
Morrill said her interest in the military comes from growing up in a military family. Both her parents were officers in the Army. Her sister is currently serving active duty in the Air Force. Her younger brother is considering joining the Navy.
"It made sense after high school to look into the military," Morrill said. "I decided to join in college."
Morrill joined the Air Force Jan. 22, 2006, the beginning of spring semester of her freshmen year at BSU.
The summer after her freshmen year, Morrill attended six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. After completing her sophomore school at BSU, Morrill went back to San Antonio to complete her technical training to work in air transportation logistics.
She didn't return to school in the fall, however, as she was deployed to Iraq in September 2008.
"I was a little nervous at first (about going to Iraq) because I didn't know what to expect," Morrill said. "But as the deployment date got closer I got excited because I was going someplace where not a whole lot people have gone."
In Iraq, Morrill worked as part of a crew in charge of moving cargo in and out of aircraft at the main military base near Baghdad. Driving forklifts and other large equipment were part of the job, she said.
"It was really nice going with a good group of people. We had a really good supervisor," she said.
For Morrill, the most challenging part of living and working in Iraq was getting used to the weather.
"It was pretty hot when I got over there," she said. "It was 120 degrees and desert climate."
After she returned from Iraq in January 2009, she didn't return to school until the following fall. Morrill said she had a semester to transition back to living a life of a student again.
"I knew I had one more year left of school," Morrill said. "That was a little bit scary. I wasn't sure how I was going to handle it."
Morrill hadn't touched a piano in months, and that made her a little anxious to return to school. In Iraq, Morrill said she was able to play on a keyboard she discovered in a chapel.
Looking back at her academic experience at BSU, Morrill said she wouldn't have been able to graduate in four years had it not been for her music professors.
"I missed a lot of school not only during deployment, but also I missed four weeks for military training this year," she said. "The professors understood my situation. Never once did I get deducted points for missing class because of training."
Now, two years after she returned from Iraq, the BSU senior and Senior Airman was called to duty once again. This time, she volunteered to go.
"I really wanted to go again," she said. "I'm single and not married yet. Plus, it's a good experience working with some really amazing people."
Some have questioned Morrill's reasoning for being in the military when she has a full ride scholarship towards a four-year degree in music. She said the combination has influenced her life in positive ways.
"I've learned how to work together with people. I've learned how to resolve conflict. I've learned to be more confident in myself," she said. "I guess it's nice to be well-rounded."
Morrill recommends for those thinking about joining the military and pursuing a degree should consider their own personal goals.
"It takes a lot of work and dedication," she said. "Just make sure you choose something you are completely passionate about. If you pick a degree, choose something you love. I've learned to persevere, take every challenge I get and do the best with what I have."
Of the faculty she worked with, Morrill is most grateful for her piano instructor Stephen Carlson's expertise and knowledge of music.
"He's a phenomenal teacher," Morrill said. "I don't know if I'd be here today graduating if it wasn't for him."
Eventually after she returns from Iraq, Morrill said she hopes to open her own studio and teach piano out of her home.
On Friday her family, friends and extended family will watch her walk across the stage to earn her degree from BSU.
"I'll probably be thinking, 'Holy crap, this is actually happening. All my hard work has paid off,'" she said.
BSU will host its 91st commencement ceremonies at 2 p.m. Friday, May 7, at the John Glas Fieldhouse, located at the corner of 19th Street and Bemidji Avenue.