Growing up surrounded by relatives who proudly served their country, Cliff Hayes knew by age 5 that he, too, would someday join the military.
“I saw my grandfather and uncles the same way I saw Spiderman — they were all heroes,” Hayes says.
Hayes never imagined, however, that joining the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a teen also would lead him to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, making him the first in his family to earn a four-year degree and, if all goes as planned, eventually making him the family’s first lawyer.
“It’s a really cool experience; I’m kind of blazing a trail,” says Hayes, a senior who is majoring in criminal justice, pre-law, and will earn a certificate in legal studies. “It’s a strange experience because none of us ever thought college would be where I’d end up. I always just wanted to do the military.”
An unexpected opportunity
Given his military plans, college never was on Hayes’ radar. That changed when he discovered he’d made a wrong turn on his way to becoming a full-time active member of the military.
Eager to enlist, Hayes joined the National Guard, seeing it as a good way to “dip his toe” into the military pool as he finished high school in Nekoosa. He planned to train with the National Guard, and then change his status to active duty once he finished high school.
However, when he got home from basic training, he learned that he must fulfill his contract with the National Guard before he can move to active duty. So, with full-time military service delayed, he began exploring his other options, which included considering college for the first time.
Since he’d have the time to juggle college and his National Guard duties and the GI bill would pay for school, he realized he had a “golden opportunity” to follow a new path. So, knowing a college degree could influence his future military rank, he decided to give it a try, choosing UW-Eau Claire because the campus and the community made him feel at home.
Once he started down his new path, he never looked back. It’s never been easy, but it’s always been rewarding, he says.
“I have to put in the extra effort,” Hayes says, noting that his military duties often require him to be away from campus for several days at a time. “You think it’s not a big deal to only miss a few days, but it’s a lot of work time that you’re missing out on. I often take a textbook with me when I’m out in the field or pack a notebook in my assault pack so I can read it late at night under my head lamp. If that’s what needs to be done, I do it.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcome one. I might complain when it’s midnight and I’ve been in the field all day doing my job and instead of going to sleep I’m doing homework, but I know it builds character and will help me in the future.”
A leader in the military, on campus
Now a UW-Eau Claire senior, Hayes is a leader on campus, pursuing and presenting research as a McNair Scholar, and representing the university as a Campus Ambassador. Academically, everything is “clicking” as he immerses himself in his criminal justice studies, he says
Equally impressive is Hayes’ success in the military, where he serves as a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 120th Field Artillery, Delta Battery, Third Platoon. A squad leader, he was named 2019 Battalion Soldier of the Year.
“Growing up, my uncles and cousins were serving, they were fighting in the war on terror and my grandfather was in World War II,” Hayes says. “I had them high up on a pedestal, so it’s kind of a surreal feeling to be wearing that same uniform. It’s an even more surreal experience to be 22 and living the dream you had when you were 5 years old.”
He's especially proud to be part of the state’s Military Funeral Honors Program, which conducts military funerals for veterans.
“To give back to the veterans community in this way has been one of greatest honors I’ve had,” Hayes says. “It’s a way to say thank you, and to show the family that they are part of something bigger than themselves. I don’t know how to describe it, but being part of it is the highlight of my career so far.”
Finding his major, future career
When he came to UW-Eau Claire, Hayes had no idea what he might want to study. He tried several majors before he found criminal justice, a program that seemed to fit him well.
“It was a process of whittling down my options,” Hayes says of finding a major. “I eventually chose criminal justice because it offers ways to stay active in the community, the same way I can in the National Guard. I’m most interested in the community-service-oriented angle of criminal justice.”
After graduating next year, he expects his next step to be law school. With a law degree, he will have many career options to consider, such as working as a federal law enforcement agent or attorney, or working within the military’s legal system.
While he’s not yet decided on a specific career path, he knows that whatever he decides on will involve helping people. That could mean working with the FBI to stop human trafficking or it could mean representing a soldier in need of a lawyer.
“I want to help people who maybe can’t do it on their own,” Hayes says. “That’s the real driving force in my wanting to go to law school.”
Embracing every opportunity
When Hayes first began thinking about law school, he was excited but also cautious — he assumed it was likely to be out of his reach.
Then, as a UW-Eau Claire junior, Hayes was accepted into the university’s McNair Scholars program, a prestigious program that prepares select undergraduate students for graduate-level research. McNair Scholars identify research projects that interest them and are paired with faculty mentors who guide them as they move through the research process. The program’s goal is to help the student scholars gain the research and other skills they need to be successful in graduate school.
At the time, Hayes already was working on a project for a criminal justice course taught by Dr. Jason Spraitz, associate professor of criminal justice. His project focused on programs for incarcerated firefighters that exists in several western states.
For the McNair program, he is building on that project, diving deeper as he looks at the impact the conservation camp programs that train incarcerated people to fight fires have on their futures. The work he is doing, with Spraitz as his mentor, is interesting and is something that he hopes can help to make a difference in the lives of those involved in the program.
The McNair Program and his research project align perfectly with his mission to make a positive difference in the world around him, Hayes says.
While the research itself is important, the connections he’s building through the McNair program also are valuable.
“More than anything, it’s just really cool to have a relationship like this with a professor,” Hayes says of Spraitz. “It’s been such an incredible experience. And now I feel like I have a leg up going into law or grad school.”
Hayes also is finding his role as a Campus Ambassador rewarding. Among his duties is giving campus tours, something he enjoys because it’s an opportunity to inspire future students.
“I think it’s really cool that I’m representing UW-Eau Claire,” Hayes says. “I came to college undecided, and as a first-generation college student, I had no idea what college was like or how to navigate it. Now, I present research and I’m looking at going to law school. I try to allay any concerns a high schooler might have about college by talking about my own experiences. It’s been awesome.”
UW-Eau Claire’s military community
Another highlight of Hayes’ time at UW-Eau Claire is being part of the campus’ military community, a tight-knit group of active members of the military and military veterans.
“I like hanging out with my buddies and swapping stories,” Hayes says of other Blugolds who have ties with the military. “I like spending time with them, and like thanking those who served before me.”
He credits Miranda Cross-Schindler, UW-Eau Claire’s veterans and military services manager, with making his college career and accomplishments possible.
“I’d have been lost without Miranda’s help,” Hayes says. “I can’t say enough good things about her and the work she does. I wouldn’t be graduating without her. At first, I was lost here, and she gave me a helping hand.”
Cross-Schindler says helping Hayes navigate the campus as a student and soldier has been an honor.
“I have been impressed with his ability to seamlessly navigate college as first-generation student and fully take advantage of the resources available to our Blugolds,” Cross-Schindler says. “His ability to excel academically while simultaneously serving in the National Guard, participate in the McNair program, and pursue volunteer work with the veterans’ treatment court is impressive. His intelligence, persistence, empathy, sense of humor and leadership skills will take him far as he continues his education and then pursues a career in the legal field.”
A bright future
As he looks to his future, Hayes is thankful that the early part of his journey unexpectedly led him to UW-Eau Claire.
“The person I was at the beginning of college is very different than the person I am as I’m nearing the end,” Hayes says. “I was never the high school student who worried about homework or studying. I thought when I got done with high school, I’d go into the military and that’s it.
“So, it’s been fun to have these experiences. When I talk to my mom or dad, I tell them college isn’t like in the movies — it’s not all parties. I spend most of my time doing my homework and readings. They’ve told me they are proud that I’m going to college and doing so well. It’s been a really good experience. I’m glad that I ended up going this route.”