The comment would have sounded like an oxymoron – and, well, unbelievable – if it hadn’t come from Jeff Weston. Military veterans, he said, are intimidated by job interviews as they near graduation at California State University, Sacramento.
It’s a flash of human insight that didn’t come to Weston just because he’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. It came over the last nine years as he listened to his fellow veterans, advocated for them and researched their educational needs. Weston is the founding director of Sac State’s Veterans Success Center.
“When I started in 2005, we were in a small cubicle in the registrar’s office,” he said. “We weren’t our own department. We didn’t have our own funding. Basically, my job was to certify the G.I. Bill, so if a vet came to the window downstairs, we could help process their G.I. Bill, but there were really no holistic services in place.”
The 38-year-old Weston and other university administrators foresaw a rising tide of veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Its benefits included paying for 36 months of education and providing a stipend for books and living expenses. Weston wanted to offer them a resource center, a place to hang out, a support system, the type of place he needed when he transferred from Boise State to CSUS in 2003.
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“I was older, and I didn’t really relate to other students,” he said. “When I was on campus, I didn’t really know where to go. I didn’t have anybody to hang out with. I didn’t know if I was eligible for financial aid. I had all these questions, and there wasn’t a center.”
Weston graduated with a bachelor’s degree in government in 2005, landed the job at the registrar’s office and used the remainder of his free education on a CSUS master’s in educational leadership. For his thesis, he studied how to build an effective veterans program at a university. In 2010, the same year he earned his master’s, he established the veterans center in its own space on campus.
“We’re really good at getting veterans admitted and getting them to their degree completion,” Weston said. “What we want to focus more energy on now is making sure that when they graduate ... they get help translating (their degree and their military experience) into a meaningful career.”
This year, Weston launched the Career Pathways Program with $125,000 in funding from Wells Fargo. CSUS graduate students Monica Daniel and Brad Zivov use their expertise in career counseling to help veterans write their resumes. They also support students as they prepare for mock interviews with real recruiters, job shadowing opportunities and an 80-hour internship with a company that matches their career goals. The funding from Wells Fargo goes toward paying Daniel and Zivov and for scholarships for veterans as they complete different levels of the program.
Wells Fargo has been a partner with the center from its inception, donating $100,000 to make its current office a reality, Weston said.
Weston continues to study how to help veterans make a successful transition to academic life. He is getting a doctoral degree in educational leadership and management from Drexel University Sacramento and recently completed interviews for his dissertation. One of the most memorable was a talk with a U.S. Marine who left service on a Friday and started class the following Monday.
“Within a couple of weeks, he went from being ... in Afghanistan and going into a classroom,” Weston said. “He went from constant vigilance, never knowing where a bullet might come from, and he’s sitting in a classroom. ... Because of the center, he was able to come talk to me or other staff members about what’s going on. He’s now halfway through a law degree.”
Weston says the military gave him a chance to reinvent himself. When he was 14, he said, his father left and never came back. Weston was living with his mother in Del Paso Heights and acknowledges that he went off the rails a bit. His mother, Lena Haynes, sent him to live with his sister in Davis, and he was able to graduate from Davis Senior High School.
He met and married his wife, Tara Weston, but he wasn’t working a steady job when they found out they were going to be parents. One night, his wife told him he had to get a steady job and suggested the military. Her father had been in the U.S. Army.
“I went the next day, saw a recruiter and left,” Weston said. “It was life-changing. I was with other people who had a lot worse stories than I did. Yeah, my dad left, but I still had a very strong mother, and I had siblings. I had support. It helped me to not feel sorry for myself.”
He said he hopes to be an example for his 17-year-old son, Jordan, and 10-year-old daughter, Ashley.
Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.