Rising to the Challenge: Student Veterans Embark on New Missions at Suffolk
“I had a pretty good job,” says Nicolas Lopez, a Suffolk senior majoring in information systems, recalling his days as a restaurant manager. “But it was the same thing every day, over and over. I wanted a change of pace, change of industry, change of mentality. And it definitely was a change.”
The change Lopez speaks of was his decision in 2010 to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served until 2016 as a supply specialist in the First Armored Division, Third Brigade, eventually retiring from the Army at the rank of corporal.
“I wanted to challenge myself in a way that, at the end of the day, I could say I’m proud of what I did.”
While Lopez’s fellow student veterans seem outwardly distinct from one another, they reliably echo the same motivating themes of change, challenge, and pride. Matthew Thoresen, a sophomore environmental science major, hails from Virginia, nowhere near Lopez’s native Colombia; he served from 2014 to 2018 in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard the cutters Campbell and Smilax. Yet he cites the same desire for work he could be proud of as a main inspiration for his decision to serve.
“I also wanted the change. I had a fine job before [as a facilities manager], but I just wanted to do something different, something that felt like it had meaning behind it. A purpose.”
“I know what you mean,” chimes in 3L Suffolk Law student Rachel Wood, recalling her own life prior to the military. “What I was doing at the time wasn’t making a difference to anything, even to myself.” Wood, a native of Texas, explains that she’d graduated high school early and enrolled in college primarily to stay covered under her parents’ health insurance plan.
“Then September 11th happened. At that point I knew that I wanted to sign up.” A little more than four weeks later, she had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where she would remain until 2008, eventually retiring as a staff sergeant in the 355th Mission Support Squadron.
Her fellow airman, MBA candidate Artem Demidov, was raised about as far from Texas as you can get, in Minsk, Belarus. He credits his decision to join the Air Force, where he served as a logistics and supply technician from 2010 to 2013, primarily to an adventurous spirit and a desire to broaden his horizons.
“I felt like the Air Force could provide me that,” he says, “help me to see the world, get myself out there.”
Pushing the Limits
“The leadership opportunities in the military are second to none,” Demidov continues. “You’re basically almost forced out of your comfort zone.” To illustrate, he recounts the high level of responsibility given to him in the course of his service.
“I was entrusted with a vault of NWRM materials,” he recalls, using an acronym for nuclear weapon related materials. “If anywhere along the logistical supply chain line something goes wrong, it’s a big deal. Sometimes I was second-guessing myself: ‘Really? You guys trust me with this stuff? I’m, like, 20 years old!’ But I did it. Once you have that much responsibility, you know you have to succeed.”
“That’s a huge one,” Thoresen concurs, regarding the challenges of leadership. “The responsibility they put in your hands is immense. At 22, I was in charge of 18 people, and I was responsible for any actions that they took. One of the big things was figuring out how to get all of them—different ages, different backgrounds—to work together and actually get done what we needed to on a day-to-day basis.”
Military service consistently showed these student veterans that their capabilities extended beyond what they had suspected. Wood describes leading a PERSCO team (Personnel Support for Contingency Operations, an office that tracks all Air Force personnel on a base) through a challenging assignment at a new post.
“When we got there, the team before us had lost complete accountability. Their system that reported numbers to DoD (Department of Defense) had gone down and they hadn’t done a software patch to fix it. So we worked 12-hour shifts, 38 days straight, until accountability was achieved. I didn’t even realize I could work those hours, let alone get a classified computer system back online. And then, if I could do something like that, I can do law school.”
A Common Destination
Four paths that started in such different places converged as these veterans completed their military service and gravitated to Suffolk University.
“It’s right in the middle of everything I need to be successful,” Lopez quickly answers when asked what drew him to Suffolk. “It’s close to the train, close to downtown, close to all the companies down here. It’s where I can make the most connections and get the most out of those connections.”
Demidov notes how Suffolk’s downtown location facilitates his own ambitions.
“What really attracted me here was the fast-track 12-month MBA program—that, and I always wanted to move to Boston. For a business student to be in a location like this is crucial, if you want to set yourself up for success and have access to all these networks and all these industries that are right here within reach.”
In Thoresen’s case, it was his Coast Guard service that introduced him directly to Boston.
“I got stationed up in Kittery, Maine. One of my first ports of call was here in Boston. We were here for a weekend, and ever since then I just loved coming back to it, so I was always looking at schools in Boston.”
Suffolk’s smaller size and growing population of student veterans sealed the deal for him, but he, too, credits the University’s singular location as a large factor in his choice to attend.
“Right next to the State House, right next to City Hall—there’s so many opportunities to work not just with companies in the area, but also with the government to get internships, partnerships, things like that.”
And how do they plan to leverage the opportunities around them to their advantage? Wood, part of the Law School’s Accelerator-to-Practice program, provides her answer, clearly one that’s been carefully considered over time.
“I want to open up my own firm,” she says, outlining an organization that caters specifically to middle-class veterans like herself who may find it hard to afford quality legal advice, and do not qualify for legal aid programs that typically benefit indigent populations.
“You may have a veteran with an undiagnosed PTSD issue, and he’s self-medicating, getting divorced, and maybe kicked out of his apartment,” all due to the same underlying reasons stemming from his service. Instead of seeking out different counsel to handle each unique issue, Wood explains, “We’d have a partner in each of those areas who we could send you to, billing at the same rate, to deal with each one of your issues.”
Taking on Stereotypes
Listening to these student veteran voices, it becomes clear that common motivations of duty, challenge, and aspiration, as much as anything else, are what define Suffolk’s student veteran community, binding together its demographic diversity. But Lopez, Wood, Thoresen, and Demidov are all eager to counter what they see as erroneous stereotypes that might come to define veterans within the Suffolk community and our culture at large.
“The common misconception out there in society is that people are in the military because they’re not good enough for higher education,” Demidov points out. “And I think we’re proving them wrong just by being here.”
People unfamiliar with military service may also generalize veterans as demon-haunted sufferers from post-traumatic stress, who need to be treated excessively gently. Lopez offers himself as a counterexample.
“A lot of people think there’s some sort of craziness associated with the veteran community. Like they don’t want to say the wrong thing in front of somebody who’s a veteran. And it’s not like that. I can hear different perspectives from different people—they’re not going to hurt my feelings. If I disagree with you, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be mad at you or crazy. They have their own opinion, I have my own opinion, and that’s just how life is.”
Thoresen, addressing the obvious differences in age and experience that may cause students to see their veteran classmates as outsiders, points out that Suffolk is a destination that can be approached from many directions.
“It’s not a requirement to, right out of high school, go straight to college. We might be a little older, but we just did it differently. We went out, joined the military, wanted to serve, and now we’re back here and we’re moving on with what we want to do now.”