Iowa City Press-Citizen: Student and Soldier Takes on Challenges

Thursday, June 11, 2009

By Rob Daniel
Iowa City Press-Citizen

When he was a student at West High, he focused much of his attention on math and science courses even though he said that math was not his best subject. He challenged himself further by signing up for the Iowa National Guard and, at age 19, was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. He returned to his industrial engineering classes at the University of Iowa and finished in 3½ years, graduating in December 2008.

In May, his hard work was rewarded with a 2009-10 National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Award to continue his pursuit of a master's degree at UI. The award consists of $30,000 per year, plus tuition and discretionary funds for up to three years, according to a news release.

"My background and my grades kind of made me a unique candidate," said Cannon, 24. "I thought it was a long shot, but to appease (my faculty adviser) and to get some external funding, I gave it my best shot."

Cannon grew up in Coralville, eventually graduating from West High in 2003. He said he was attracted to the field of industrial engineering because it was a chance to work with teams on complex projects involving math and science.

"I've always liked science," he said. "Math was a challenge to me and I wanted to prove to myself I could do it."

His father, Tom Cannon, also influenced him. Jordan Cannon said his father, who had served in the Army, taught him and his brothers, Jake and Eron, to be self-reliant and that the military could help him build character.

At 17, Jordan Cannon decided to sign up for the Iowa National Guard, and spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school going through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He said he was not concerned about the possibility of war, despite his enlistment coming right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the United States subsequently going to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I'm patriotic and I wanted to serve my country," Cannon said. "(Deployment) is a distant concept. My deployment and my year in Afghanistan was one of the greatest experiences of my life."

Deployment came after he had missed the fall semester of his freshman year at UI to undergo advanced training as a medic and only three weeks after he started the spring semester in February 2004. Joining the Task Force 168, Alpha Company 1st Platoon, out of Council Bluffs, he was stationed at Bagram Air Force Base outside of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Cannon said the villagers they worked with tended to view the American soldiers favorably as they helped with reconstruction or brought aid, such as care packages from schoolchildren back in Iowa City.

"We were very fortunate never to have come under direct fire," he said. "Our whole mission was delivering aid or building schools. We weren't the enemy, so to speak."

In May 2005, he returned to Iowa City and his studies at UI and his fiancée, Lauren, whom he married in July 2006. He said after his experiences in Afghanistan, along with a correspondence course he took while being deployed, he had little trouble returning to a student's life, despite starting two years after he graduated from high school.

"(Going to war) builds character pretty fast," Cannon said. "When you come home after having that responsibility, it makes going to school easier. It grounded me."

Cannon is now focusing his energies on his thesis, which is "adapting aiding with smart technologies," a process he said studies the brain waves of Air Force operators as they operate multiple systems. The hope is to eventually adapt the computer systems to allow for fewer human errors while multi-tasking, he said. The National Science Foundation award is helping to fund that research, he said.

He said the extra hard work will allow him to continue toward a likely engineering job in the public sector after he graduates again.

"It's intense, but as long as my thesis comes along, I'll be finished in December 2009," Cannon said.