It wasn’t long after starting her first annual training for the National Guard that Haleigh Wagman started noticing something strange: nobody was talking to her. The other members of her infantry unit seemed to have no problem connecting with each other, just not her.
In a company of about 130, Wagman was the only female around who wasn’t serving food as a line cook. It took about three days for the ice to break, which the Southern Oregon University graduate now finds pretty funny.
“Sometimes, once guys put on the uniform it’s like they don’t know how to interact with girls,” Wagman said. “I was like, ‘You guys have wives and you guys went to college and high school with girls, why all of a sudden now are you being weird? Why can’t you work together now?’ ”
Wagman laughs at the memory now because the rest of the company finally did warm up to her, she completed her training and cleared many other hurdles, and now is about two months away from making some history and becoming the first Oregon ROTC-trained female infantry officer. Now a second lieutenant in the Texas Army National Guard in San Marcos, Wagman is assigned to the infantry Basic Officer course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Wagman, who will serve with her 141st Infantry Battalion starting in May until she begins working toward a doctorate in August, joined SOU’s Reserve Officers Training Corps program not long after finishing high school early so she could join the Oregon Army National Guard. The Minuteman Scholarship covered Wagman’s tuition and fees at SOU, and the ROTC program provided no-cost housing. That seemed like a pretty good deal for Wagman, a standout three-sport athlete at North Valley High School who was smart enough to know that she wouldn’t be landing major athletic scholarships.
“I needed to pay for school somehow,” she said.
She interviewed for the Minuteman Scholarship over the phone while she was in basic training.
Looking back at the number of commitments she had as a college freshman at SOU, Wagman says the flexibility of the ROTC program made it possible to stick with volleyball, at least for the first two years. After that, she said goodbye to one of her favorite pastimes to focus on her academics. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry and has now received offers from three doctoral programs — the School of Behavioral Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas A&M College of Medicine and the Integrated Biomedical Sciences doctoral program at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
Wagman’s accomplishments hardly come as a surprise to her former volleyball coach at SOU, Josh Rohlfing, a family friend who says Wagman’s predominant trait is her ability to set her mind on a goal and do whatever it takes to accomplish it.
“She has an incredible work ethic,” Rohlfing said. “She aims to have as many life experiences as possible, with most being in the service of others. That fear of being seen as foolish or too invested as a young person is void in her, which contributes greatly to her ability to be undeterred in most everything she does. Haleigh is a bit of a unicorn in that regard. She is a special individual."
Wagman’s determination was put to the test in the spring of 2018 when she competed in the Bataan Memorial Death March, a marathon held annually at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. As if running a marathon in the desert isn’t hard enough, Wagman did it while wearing a 35-pound backpack.
Competitors could pick which division in which to compete. Wagman chose the most difficult, “military heavy,” which meant she wasn’t allowed to take off her pack during the marathon. At one point during the grueling event, she realized she had stopped sweating. Not a good sign.
“That’s one of the last things you do before you go down,” she said.
She finished it, though, partly to prove to others that she could , she admits, and partly to prove it to herself.
Now, Wagman is looking forward to putting her considerable brainpower to good use as she pursues her PhD. One bonus she recently discovered is that she’ll be compensated as she studies, health insurance included. Not that she wouldn’t find a way to finish anyway.
Wagman is passionate about her chosen career path. Her dad, Adam Wagman, is a special-ed high school teacher, and Haleigh would often swing by to help him out. Once at SOU, Wagman worked with Ashland Supportive Housing, offering respite care and community outreach for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The impact from those experiences is evident in the way Wagman talks about what’s next on her to-do list. She can’t wait for the day she runs her own neuroscience research lab to study autism spectrum disorder and is surrounded by others who share her passion.
“I did that on and off for about seven years, working with people from IDD,” Wagman said. “I really, really love doing that, but I also really, really love science. So this is kind of my way of smashing those two things together to make it work.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.