A Marine's path to Willamette

by Sarah Evans,

  • Steven Anderson

“Write about five books that everyone should read and why.” Seems like a straightforward question for a college application essay. But try answering thoughtfully while sitting in a foxhole in the Saudi Arabian desert, surrounded by fellow Marines, waiting for a ground war that will likely start any day.

Steven Anderson pondered literature between blowing up enemy munition mines as a combat engineer during the Persian Gulf War. He hoped he could impress the Willamette admission officers enough to enroll him in fall 1991, despite his lackluster academic record of bouncing from one community college to another.

Eventually, he settled on titles including Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” He jotted ideas on any paper he could find — napkins, notepads, envelopes — and then mailed it all to his wife in Salem, asking her to find out the proper format for submitting the application.

“Several weeks later, I got a note back from her that said, ‘The university said it had to be handwritten, so I just sent them what you sent me,’” Anderson remembers with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Well, so much for that one.’”

But just before Anderson returned from the Gulf, he received a surprising letter from Willamette: he’d been accepted.

Up until that point, Anderson says he was “one of those people who needed the Marine Corps a lot more than it needed me.” He’d grown up in Bend, Oregon, moved out on his own at age 17 and soon got married and became a parent.

He was intrigued when one of his coworkers joined the Marines — particularly when he learned the G.I. Bill could help him go to college. “I felt like I was flailing around, so I thought the Marines would help give me discipline and direction,” he says.

After enlisting in the reserves at age 20, Anderson attempted community college several times, but struggled with motivation. Then his reserve unit was activated in November 1990 to deploy to Saudi Arabia.

“I was in the Gulf when I thought, ‘If I survive this experience, I will knuckle down and finish my degree,’” he says. “It was like the deal with the deity.”

He was only back in the States for about three months when he started classes at Willamette — a 25-year-old father, husband and war veteran. “In the military, the bullets are real. People live or die based on your decisions. You come back here and the decisions don’t seem as important. I had a hard time re-acclimating,” he says.

“I wasn’t as smart as most of my classmates, but I had work ethic and determination. My time in the Marines gave me new perspective — it was going to take some sweat, but I could see a path through it.”

Anderson earned a bachelor’s in humanities and, through the dual-degree program with Atkinson Graduate School of Management, also completed a master of management. At the suggestion of his mentor, professor Fred Thompson, he discovered the world of consulting.

Today, Anderson is a vice president at Avanade Inc., which provides Microsoft-focused consulting services to companies. He’s the service line lead for the North America Microsoft Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) practice (ERPs are software systems that provide functions such as inventory control or financial accounting). He returned to his alma mater last spring to teach a course at Atkinson on enterprise architecture management. Plus, he’s a proud Bearcat parent: Ashley, the daughter he raised while he was a student, earned her bachelor’s from Willamette in 2008 and her Master of Arts in Teaching in 2009.

It’s not a path Anderson could have predicted when he was still a wayward teenager. But the Marine Corps and Willamette helped him find the way.

“Willamette made me credible,” he says. “It taught me how to write, argue a point, do research. It gave me the ability to enter the workforce. The Corps gave me what I needed to stand up to something that looked pretty daunting and still be able to compete. I use both things, even today.”