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Serving Country & Fellow Students

Note: This is the fourth profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

By Christian Taske ’07

Junior nursing student Keith Cavey spends about 13 hours a week in Notre Dame’s Registrar Office, where he works as a representative for the College’s 30 plus veterans. He manages their information and notifies Assistant Registrar Keya Jennings if their GPA falls below a certain point or if they are not taking enough credits to be considered full-time. He has created a spreadsheet to keep track of their data. The point is to prevent veterans from losing benefits that allow them to attend NDC at virtually no cost. Cavey knows the importance of those benefits. He is a veteran himself.

Cavey enrolled at Notre Dame College in January 2010, only a few weeks after he had left the Marines. For the previous eight years, Cavey had been a member of one of the Marines’ select units – he had been a piano player for the Marine Corps bands.

Music has a long tradition in the Marine Corps dating back to the drum and fife of the American Revolution. But of the about 225,000 Marines only 500 have the honor to be selected as musicians. They play in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, “The Commandant’s Own” United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, or one of the 12 other Marine Corps fleet bands. They perform at White House ceremonies, national events and in more than 500 public and official appearances each year.

The musicians are selected through a rigorous audition process, during which they must prove they have what it takes to perform – musically and in combat. For Cavey that process began with a piano audition in his home in Cleveland Heights and continued in boot camp in Paris Island, S.C.

“It was really tough,” Cavey says. “They break you down and build you back up. My parents didn’t recognize me when I graduated boot camp. Before, I had always slouched, and then after boot camp I stood up straight.”

Cavey spent the next four years stationed in Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert. During that time he performed at the most memorable event in his military career – Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

“Because it happened suddenly, everything had to come together quickly,” Cavey remembers. “It was very disorganized. They couldn’t find anywhere for us to sleep so they ended up putting us in a warehouse. We just slept on the floor. We did a lot of standing around. But when we actually got to play, it was a very profound experience.”

Keith Cavey
Keith Cavey was a piano player for the Marine Corps.

Cavey made equally profound but very different experiences during the second half of his service, which he spent in Okinawa, Japan. He visited places such as Hiroshima, Guam and Korea. In Thailand, Cavey played with the Royal Thai Air Force at diplomatic parties, orphanages and humanitarian events.

In Japan, during jungle warfare training, Cavey learned how to navigate in the pouring rain, what bugs are edible and what plants poisonous, and how to rappel off mountains. During one of these exercises a fellow Marine fell off a mountain and broke his leg. Cavey had to set it and help carry the wounded Marine back to the camp. That’s when Cavey discovered his interest in nursing, which he now studies at Notre Dame College.

Cavey admits that coming back to the U.S. to attend college was quite a lifestyle change.

“You don’t have anyone telling you what to do, and if you do poorly no one is there to help you out,” he says. “In the Marines, if you messed up somebody was always there to pick you back up.”

The 30-year-old admits having been worried about going back to college, but says that the Marine Corps taught him virtues such as punctuality and discipline, which have helped him succeed. But that sounds like an understatement, because Cavey has been on the Dean’s or President’s lists every semester.

Besides succeeding academically, Cavey has put his leadership and musical skills on display at NDC. His fellow students selected him to be their voice on the Nursing Admission and Retention Committee, which reviews applications and makes recommendations to the nursing board.

“Keith offers valuable feedback and insight from the student perspective to other committee members,” says Assistant Professor of Nursing Judy Risko, who chairs the committee. “Keith demonstrates leadership skills and professionalism in his interactions with other students and faculty. In addition, he excels in his nursing studies and exhibits dedication to a high quality of academic work.”

In the Registrar Office, Keith has quickly become a valuable asset too, as he has been instrumental in assisting with improving the VA certification process to ensure compliance and student success.

“Keith is dependable, hardworking and brilliant by nature,” Keya Jennings, his supervisor, says. “He exudes the definition of a hard worker who is committed and passionate about his education and success at NDC and abroad. Due to his admirable personality and affluence of knowledge we often joke of cloning him.”

Sometimes it seems there are already clones of Keith walking around campus because he seems to be everywhere. You might spot him running a half-marathon for a charitable cause, playing the keyboard in the Falcon Café, or directing and acting in one of the College’s musicals.

“Keith is an extraordinary guy,” Jacqi Loewy, assistant professor of communication and theatre, says. “He has innate talent – a fabulous voice, musicianship and acting chops – and the desire to work hard. In addition to being a terrific student, he is a good role model for our younger guys.”

Cavey dreams of writing a musical based on his experiences in the Marines before he graduates from NDC. But with all of his responsibilities he is running low on free time, he says with a laugh.

Cavey says Notre Dame College is the right place for military veterans who want to start new careers. He picked NDC for its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program. The optional program is designed to fill the gap between the G.I. Bill benefit and the tuition cost at a private college, if a veteran chooses to attend one. That financial support can make a difference in a veteran’s decision to attend college; and that’s why Cavey takes his job in the Registrar Office so seriously. “We have very few problems with the vets,” he says. “They are all responsible people.”

In addition to the benefits, the College is a great place for veterans, Cavey says, because they believe in its mission of personal, professional and global responsibility. “All the vets I have seen around here still have a commitment to doing something that is beyond just themselves,” he says. “And that syncs up really well with the Notre Dame College attitude.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the director of print & digital communications at Notre Dame College.