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GREAT GRAD! UNCP graduate takes tea at the White House


Crystal Cavalier sent regrets that she could not attend her graduation on May 6.

With three children, ages 10, 6 and 3, and an Army husband who is frequently deployed in the Middle East, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree was hard won. But she had another obligation.

Cavalier, who is the 2011-12 Army Spouse of the Year, had tea with First Lady Michelle Obama on the morning of graduate commencement. "It was a really awesome honor," Cavalier said.

On May 13, Cavalier picked up her diploma and was officially "hooded" by Dr. Sara Simmons, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

"I was delighted when Mrs. Cavalier contacted me to ask about having our pictures taken together, with both of us in our regalia," Dr. Simmons said. "She was so disappointed that she was not able to attend the official School of Graduate Studies commencement ceremony. However, I understood completely her decision to accept the invitation to the White House."

"We decided to make our meeting into a mini hooding ceremony," Dr. Simmons continued, "and I invited a university photographer to take photos. We had a great time talking about her experiences in Washington."

"As one of our newest alumni, Mrs. Cavalier undoubtedly will continue to make us proud," Dr. Simmons predicted. "Obviously, community outreach and service to others are her passions, and she makes such a positive difference in the lives of those she meets."

In an interview with UNCP's Newswire, Cavalier demonstrated why she is Military Spouse magazine's Army Spouse of the Year. There seems to be no adversity she cannot rise above, and she lifts up others with her.

Before talking about the tea, one story begs to be told: When Cavalier's daughter Catherine, 10, developed a rare form of juvenile arthritis recently, they dealt with specialists, complications and treatments—including steroid injections and chemotherapy—while her husband was overseas.

"I didn't tell my husband any of this because he was deployed, and I didn't want to distract him," she said. "Distractions lead to mistakes."

Instead she started a non-profit organization dedicated to helping other families suffering from the same disease. "It is rare, but we found another family at Ft. Bragg with it," Cavalier said. "I am trying to support other families because it really helps to talk with other families with the same problem."

The past few years have been extraordinary and a little "crazy," she said. "But the past couple of weeks were amazing."

A Greensboro, N.C., native, Cavalier earned an undergraduate degree from UNCG. After settling into Ft. Bragg with her young family in 2008, she decided to further her education.

"I looked around and there are several colleges on post," she said. "Pembroke was the most affordable and the advisement and administrative support was outstanding. It was a long two-and-a-half years, but it really worked out well."

Cavalier would have graduated earlier, but she became interested in emergency management and added it as a special concentration. She took classes on base, online and on campus.

"I liked coming to UNCP because I got to know my professors, who are really outstanding teachers and people," she said. "That helped me get a graduate assistantship."

Cavalier's winning ways worked to make her a finalist in the Army Spouse of the Year contest too. Friends she made through volunteering voted early and often.

"I do a lot of volunteering," she said. "Anything that helps military families, I'm in. As chapter director for Blue Star Families, I travel to meet families who don't live near a base, which can be a real problem because of lack of support."

She also volunteers with the National Military Family Association's Operation Purple Camps for children of military families. Cavalier also works with the Red Cross' Disaster Action Team and is co-leader of her husband's Family Readiness Group.

With a busy spring of volunteering, school work and family responsibilities, Cavalier forgot that she had entered the Military Spouse contest. "I was writing my (master's) thesis and simply forgot about it," she said. "I made the top five, and they gave us two months to campaign again for votes. So, I worked hard on it, and I had overwhelming support from my friends."

At the same time, Cavalier was competing for the title, Michelle Obama was launching a crusade of her own to support military families. An invitation went out to Cavalier for a Mother's Day tea at the White House.

The tea proved to be much more than polite conversation. They toured the first floor and "saw rooms not open to the public," Cavalier said. "We sat on the furniture. It was like 'make yourself at home.'"

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who are working with the First Lady on the program, were on the guest list along with the cast of the "Army Wives" television program. The First Lady gave a presentation on her program, and then high tea got underway.

"It was really, really nice china," Cavalier said of the tea set. "And it was an adventure in food. The guests ranged from age eight to 88."

The tea lasted two hours and was followed by more tours of the gardens and other rooms that Cavalier did not know existed. "They even let us take pictures," she said.

While in Washington, Cavalier also met with North Carolina Senators Kay Hagen and Richard Burr. "Sen. Burr is very funny and down to earth in person," Cavalier said. "Sen. Hagen is from a military family, so she is a very strong supporter."

Meanwhile, Sgt. Danny Cavalier has orders to deploy again, and Crystal is pondering her options. She enjoyed a federal job working in congressional affairs at the base, and she enjoyed working at UNCP during her yearlong graduate assistantship.

"I am interested in public administration and public policy," she said. "Ultimately, I would like to get a Ph.D. and be a professor. With my husband gone again, I have a year to think about it."

If the past is a good predictor, it will be an eventful year.