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Former homeless veteran earns two NMSU degrees, pays it forward

Living 2,000 miles from home after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, Robin Rollins didn’t have anywhere to go. The Army and Navy veteran was homeless and spending nights living in her car and then a local shelter in El Paso.

Woman poses outside.
Robin Rollins, an Army and Navy veteran, overcame many challenges to earn two degrees from New Mexico State University. Currently with the Department of Veterans Affairs in El Paso, Texas, she works with the community to hire veterans. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)
Two women talk in a computer lab.
Robin Rollins, Army and Navy veteran and New Mexico State University alumna, (left) and Candice Gilbert, program coordinator with NMSU’s Military and Veterans Programs, talk with students in the Military and Veterans Programs computer lab. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

Looking for a connection to her Pennsylvania home, Rollins found that feeling on a campus visit to New Mexico State University. She began her studies at NMSU in 2004 and earned two degrees – a bachelor’s in family and consumer science in 2006 and master’s in social work in 2008.

A Lititz, Pennsylvania, native, Rollins’ 15 years of military service started when she enlisted in the Army in 1987.

“I graduated high school in 1985 from Warwick High School and I was struggling to decide what path to take because I knew that college wasn’t somewhere I wanted to enter right now and I was still trying to discover what I wanted,” she said.

While in the Army, Rollins worked in a medical clinic for many years. Following a reduction of force, Rollins wanted to stay on active status and enlisted in the Navy in 1990. She returned to the Army for a second stint, which included a deployment to Saudi Arabia where she worked in a combat hospital. Rollins returned from deployment and started developing health problems while stationed at Ft. Bliss that led to an honorable discharge in 2002.

“It totally took me by surprise – no planning whatsoever,” she said. “They discharged me with an honorable discharge, but I had nowhere to go because I didn’t want to go back to my family and have to bear the rejection. I did not receive any type of separation pay. I had no savings put aside since my life plans were to serve until I could receive my 20-year retirement income.”

Growing up in a conservative German, Mennonite-Brethren family in Pennsylvania, who are opposed to the military, Rollins hid her military service. For Rollins, life after the military included pursuing a degree. She attended NMSU while living at the Opportunity Center shelter in El Paso. After living at the Opportunity Center, she interviewed and was accepted to live at the Veterans Transitional Living Center and then the YWCA Transitional Living Center.

“I kept it secret from them and I ended up being homeless, because I had nowhere to go and had to start my life all over,” Rollins said. “I came to New Mexico State and it felt like Penn State back home. I connected with the agriculture aspect of the school.”

While on campus one day, Rollins stopped at a student support services booth for first generation students. Rollins joined the program that included a mentor along with tutoring and additional student services.

“Being that I was going through this homeless period in my life, which I did not disclose to anybody during that time, this was great to feel like I was connected outside of that homeless world that I was living in,” Rollins said. “I did that for two years and I applied to become a mentor for the undergraduates as a graduate student. It was really nice that I was able to give back.”

After four years at NMSU and two degrees, Rollins said the commencement experience was a surreal moment.

“I still struggle with that – that I had the privilege to wear a gown,” she said. “I never thought I would have that because I had received an associate degree, but it was while I was on active duty and they mailed the paper to me. To be able to hear that ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ it was pretty exciting.”

Three years after graduation, Rollins began working with the VA in El Paso, where she shared her personal experiences with local veterans. In a VA outreach position, Rollins visited the camps and shelters in Las Cruces and El Paso to try to help local veterans. Rollins began a new position in December 2014 as a VA community employment coordinator.

“I’m trying to locate employers that want to participate, ‘buy in,’ by in employing veterans,” Rollins said. “There’s lot of great experiences and characteristics that veterans have and bring to the table. Some veterans are faced with some challenges, and I am able to help veterans navigate through their adjustment period. Since I have firsthand experience of going through a homeless journey, I can offer unconditional support.”

From her work with homeless veterans to advocating for the hiring of veterans, the VA is preparing to share Rollins’ veteran success story. A film crew traveled to the borderland in late April to feature her story, which will air at a later date.

Rollins said she was honored the VA selected her story and hopes it inspires others to overcome adversity and follow their dreams.