For many students attending college for the first time, or even students working on attaining a graduate education, there is hardly any doubt that family support is everything. Whether it’s emotional, financial, or more general in its presentation, many students will agree that, no matter what its form may be, family support is a necessity for overall academic success.
For Aaron Bisignani, a graduate student in Marywood’s Master of Social Work program, the support and example of his family have been paramount to his personal and professional growth.
Throughout his life, the importance of integrity and service was reinforced in the example set by his parents. Raised in Sterling, Pennsylvania, to a mother who served the public as a local school teacher and a father who worked for the Department of Environmental Protection’s emergency response division, Bisignani saw firsthand the difference an individual’s commitment to service can make in a community.
With these experiences in mind, Bisignani craved the opportunity to serve the public in his own career as well. When the time came for him to choose the path his life would take, he chose to study criminal justice at Temple University.
However, just because he plotted his course did not mean he had found his destination.
After graduating from Temple, Bisignani faced several difficult years working as a food expeditor in a Ruth Chris’ Steak House in Philadelphia.
During this time, he spun his wheels. He was a recent college graduate, ambitious, and full of dreams; he just needed the opportunity to make them happen.
"After plenty of heartbreak and a plethora of long nights with friends, I realized that I was trying to break the system," he said. "But I really needed to adapt."
This returned him to an option he had flirted with in the past before he fully committed to attaining a four-year degree: military service.
"I always had an affinity for service, and pitching into society always mattered to me," Bisignani said, citing, foremost, his parents' display of commitment and respect toward their family and community.
The first time he had the potential to serve in the armed forces, he was a college freshman and sought to serve in the navy just as his grandfather had. His parents invited a recruiter to their home in 2008, and he subsequently chose to remain in school.
Now 26 years old, he was ready to approach the prospect of enlisting for a second time. Knowing the Navy was not a good fit for him, he approached the Army and the Air Force for more information on the opportunities available to an enlistee. He chose the Air Force after seeing what vocational jobs were available to him if he chose to make his service a career.
Embarking on a new path, Bisignani would have never known just how influential this new course would be in forming his future.
The enlisted airman would go on to graduate from basic training as an honor graduate, attain the rank of E4 Senior Airman on an aircraft armament weapons systems load crew, a position that would see him rewarded for exemplary service in 2019.
As a recent graduate from basic training, however, Bisignani was simply happy for a break and to be back with his family once again.
"As pivotal as basic training was, when my family picked me up, I wanted to run away from there," he said. "Basic training was unlike anything I ever imagined. The movies do a good job depicting what happens, but until a person has experienced it, it’s hard to explain."
Bisignani did not run away. Instead, he found new commitment and meaning through his service, and the diversity he encountered among the Air Force’s ranks enabled him to grow in ways he had not previously considered.
"I met people from all around the county, all walks of life, and all different types of humor and perspectives. It keeps you on your toes. It really requires an individual to have an open mind and an open heart and to view people better because you have to be a team." He said, "The people that you meet are without a doubt the best part of military service. You form a lot of really great friendships."
His capacity to be an active and high-contributing member of a team provided him with the opportunity to fine-tune the people skills he garnered at his restaurant job and went on to earn him formal recognition.
While stationed on Guam in 2019, the United States entered a nuclear standoff with North Korea. The responsibility to prepare for a possible escalation fell, in part, on Bisignani and his crew. Leading to a brutal succession of 12-hour shifts to load Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMS) and countermeasures on B-1 bombers.
"As a team, there weren’t many of us; we had to compensate for that," Bisignani said. "I think going into it, we were scared, but we were prepared, and I think coming out of it, we were not just relieved but also proud of the job that we did."
Bisignani’s crew outworked many of the larger crews in response to the threat. They were coined, a military practice of honoring service members for exemplary service, by the 36th Wing Commander for loading 26 JASSMs and 32 countermeasures onto the B-1 aircraft in their care.
Preparing to separate from the military on a high note, Bisignani faced the challenge of readapting to civilian life during the 2020 lockdown. His family played a crucial role in his readjustment. Living with his twin brother during the pandemic, Bisignani benefited from the COVID-19 relief services that provided him with an income as he studied math with the aim of attaining a degree in environmental engineering from Wilkes University. By the time he enrolled, he had tested into Calculus 101 as a result of his independent study using Khan Academy. Excited to begin his future, he went to his first class at Wilkes determined to make a go of this new career decision.
"But when I got to my first class, I knew I had made a mistake," Bisignani said. "I realized I wanted to do something where I was working with individuals and making an impact in their lives."
He wrestled with his instinct to enroll in a social work program. Transitioning from a world where traditionally masculine traits such as strength, individuality, using tools, and working outside were preferred, he feared he would not be seen as a man if he elected to work in a helping profession.
Still, his strengths were his intuition and desire to understand others, qualities he had not previously leaned into when searching for a path in life.
He reached out to a friend who also had a passion for working with people and was spurred into action. He enrolled at Drexel for an online winter term before enrolling in Marywood’s program full-time.
"It was a perfect fit," Bisignani said. "Marywood has a beautiful campus. It has a beautiful history, and the School of Social Work has a beautiful history—not to mention, it’s right in my backyard, which I really wanted after spending four years away from my family."
Recently married and preparing to enter his final year in the program, Bisignani prepares to enter the social work field with the aim of helping the broader community as well as the area’s veteran population.
"The social work department has prepared me for this by providing me with so many invaluable and amazing experiences in the classroom and in the community," he said. "I was able to learn how to meet the client where they’re at, understand the intersectionality of their life, and understand that a lot of the people in front of me have gone through very difficult experiences in ways that enable me to make an impactful change in their lives. Marywood’s program shows you how to use empathy, open-mindedness, and open-heartedness—skills that we all already possess—more effectively and strategically to better meet the client you’re with and the moment you’re in."
Since joining the military in 2015, Bisignani has grown in ways he could have never imagined. In the early days of his enlistment, the Air Force’s expectations of integrity, service, and excellence from its members came easily to him because he saw them modeled for him by his parents.
The foundation they laid for him and his own commitment to perfecting it within himself while serving provided him with the structure and tools to take responsibility for the direction of his life. A life he hopes will live up to the challenge posed in his favorite quote: "Be a better father than your father."
"I love that quote, because it is a really high bar in my case; I had a great father, but also because, in a broader context, it is a challenge to be a better person and to take responsibility for the people in our lives who really depend on us. It calls on us to be better for them," Bisignani said. "In social work, families are so important because they are the start and end of our day. Family is so important because it extends to our interactions with people outside the home as well as inside the home. So that challenge of responsibility extends out as well."
With his future in sight, Bisignani leaves veterans contemplating further education with this advice:
"Reach out to as many people as possible in the field that you are interested in and seek advice, ask to shadow that individual, or even cold call a business and just ask if it would be okay for you to ask a couple of questions," he said. "There won’t always be opportunities there, but sometimes there will be. I think you’ll be surprised at how welcoming and open some of the people you’ll be talking to are."