Veteran completed his degree on the coronavirus front line

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Eberhardt
By Jenny Hudak

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Eberhardt

Veteran completed his degree on the coronavirus front line

By Jenny Hudak
Jeffrey Eberhardt, a mechanical engineering major, is a veteran special forces medical sergeant in the military who finished his degree while serving COVID-19 patients in a New York hospital.

In a bustling COVID-19 hospital unit on the upper east side of New York City, it wasn’t the graduation ceremony Jeffrey Eberhardt, a University of Miami mechanical engineering major, envisioned for himself.

But when the clock struck 7 on a recent evening, the city streets flooded with applause and celebration from the balconies of nearby residents, honoring Eberhardt’s commencement—and his dedicated service. Complete with printed diplomas, old caps and gowns, and his family on FaceTime, it was a moment Eberhardt says he will cherish forever. 

“Every night, all of New York comes out and applauds health care workers,” Eberhardt said. “Our staff put out flyers, letting them know they were doing a graduation ceremony for us, and we had the whole city applauding and cheering at our gate. It’ll be pretty hard to top that,” he added.

Eberhardt served for 12 years as a special forces’ medical sergeant in the U.S. Army. In April, he was recruited to serve in New York City—the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the United States— at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He arrived in the city on April 8, just three days after receiving the call to action.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to watch and be part of the combination of civilian health care melding with military veterans. I’ve just been blown away by the interoperability and the way that everyone adapted to one another to be a part of this,” Eberhardt said.

Despite ending his collegiate career on the front lines of the coronavirus, last week his colleagues in New York set up a makeshift ceremony in honor of Eberhardt and 12 other graduates working in the hospital units to honor their hard work and dedication to completing their degrees.

For the past month he has worked 16-hour days, all while still taking his classes remotely. The completion of his degree has been nothing shy of a feat of perseverance.

“I am very grateful. The College of Engineering, Dr. Ram Narasimhan, Dr. Michael R. Swain, and their peers have been so helpful and understanding. I can’t speak enough to how flexible and understanding the staff at UM has been,” Eberhardt shared.

After retiring from active duty, Eberhardt decided to return to his studies. That’s when he arrived at the University in spring 2018 as a transfer student to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

Within weeks on campus, he quickly began leaving his mark. An active member of the Veterans Students Organization (VSO), Eberhardt dedicated his time to creating the Sweat With Vets event. It involved constructing a military-style obstacle course on the University’s Foote Green to engage students and bring awareness to the veteran student population on campus.

“The event gained us a lot of notoriety on campus and in the news. We were able to get a lot of attention for some great veteran organizations and even engage with the student body and increase our membership,” Eberhardt pointed out. 

He went on to explain that the VSO exists not only as a community for veterans on campus but for members of the University community to support our veterans and troops currently serving.

Additionally, Eberhardt serves as a volunteer dive instructor for and board member of Divers for Education and Environmental Protection (DEEP). A non-profit organization, DEEP focuses on teaching teenagers how to scuba dive and conducts environmental protection activities, such as ocean cleanups, coral restoration, and national parks preservation. He also has worked as an instructor for Veterans Ocean Adventures, a nonprofit organization that uses scuba diving as a method to assist veterans in addressing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

His passions for diving and marine life were sparked many years ago by the person he credits for his determination—his wife, Michelle.

“I’m extremely fortunate to have an amazing family that is so supportive and understanding. We know that if we were in this same situation, someone would come to help us,” Eberhard said. “I get asked a lot ‘Well, how do you do it?’ And honestly—I don’t. My wife does it, and I get credit by association. I’m clearly riding her coattails, and I think she’s making me look good,”

Eberhardt’s wife paved his path for arriving at the U, he said. After living many years in northern Virginia, a new job opportunity in Miami for Michelle prompted their family’s move to South Florida. They now reside in Miami with their children, Damien, 18, Marcos and Ariana, 16, Leila 14, and Blake, 6.

As a busy dad, active community member, and full-time student, Eberhardt shared that he’s grateful for the support the University community has offered him to focus on his studies for the past two years. He joked that his relationships with his professors and other students inside and outside the classroom made his experience memorable. 

“I’ll never forget the first week of class. I had a student come up to me to ask about the syllabus. I had to explain to them that I wasn’t the professor,” Eberhardt recalled. “So, I developed a very unique relationship with my professors and classmates, and I made a lot of good friendships. There are some really brilliant, young minds here that are wise beyond their years. I’ve made some friends that will last beyond my time at the University of Miami.”