A Salute to Spartan Veterans

by | Nov 8, 2023 | Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured

Spartan veterans celebrate spring 2023 commencement. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

Michelle Hayes Ocampo, ’22 Nursing, and Kimberly Thornburg, ’22 Business, speak a language shared by approximately 2% of the American population: Military. They relate to each other with obvious ease, volleying acronyms and finishing each other’s sentences while reminiscing about their formative years spent in the sky, on the ground and at sea. They even use the same gestures, lifting palms diagonally in a “knife hand” to stress a point, crossing one palm over the other to indicate that they are “at ease.”

Both Navy Aircrew veterans, Hayes Ocampo and Thornburg met at San José State’s Veterans Resource Center, a one-stop shop for military-connected Spartans, and soon discovered that they’d served in similar roles before enrolling — and later working for — SJSU. The VRC has grown exponentially since it opened in the Diaz Compean Student Union in 2016, and offers everything from help with state and educational benefits, a yearlong veterans career readiness program, career advising and referral services, extracurricular activities, ongoing events and more.

Kimberly Thornburg

Thornburg enlisted in the Navy at age 23 and served stateside as a naval aircrewman mechanical second class. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Thornburg.

Thornburg enlisted in the Navy at age 23 and served stateside as a naval aircrewman mechanical second class — a job she describes as equal parts responsibility, challenge and thrill — while Hayes Ocampo worked as a naval aircrewman non-acoustic operator and deployed to Bahrain, Turkey and Japan. Though their experiences at home and abroad varied, Hayes Ocampo and Thornburg agree that their years in the service shaped who they are professionally and personally.

They arrived at SJSU within a year of each other — Hayes Ocampo in 2018, Thornburg in 2019 — and both experienced challenges in adjusting to civilian life.

“In the military, we have such a directed path,” says Thornburg, who now works as the program coordinator at the VRC while also juggling an MBA program at Santa Clara University. “We know what’s expected. We know what to wear. We know what we’ll be doing on an average day. So when you have so much freedom, while it’s enticing, it’s also very overwhelming. Sometimes I can see the look on students’ faces when they come into the center. They may not feel like talking about it or even recognize it themselves, but I had that look on my face when I came here and I know what it feels like.”

Michelle Hayes Ocampo

Michelle Hayes Ocampo as served naval aircrewman non-acoustic operator prior to enrolling at SJSU. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hayes Ocampo.

Hayes Ocampo, who worked as a student assistant in the VRC while pursuing her degree, says that spaces like the VRC are essential for military-connected students who want to take advantage of their benefits or seek a like-minded community at SJSU. Though she originally planned to become a nurse, when the VRC announced an opening for a veteran counselor/certifying official, she leapt at the opportunity. She accepted the permanent position not long after giving birth to her first child earlier this year.

“If I can hide behind in the shadows, I will hide in the shadows,” says Hayes Ocampo. “When I first got to SJSU, the VRC was the only place on campus where I felt safe. It was a safe haven. It offered a welcoming feeling; even if my peers served in different branches of the military at different times, I know they get it. I don’t know what it is, but you feel kinship. The VRC helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

“I see you. I want to know your story.”

VRC Director Maggie Morales, who helped establish the brick and mortar center in 2016 and has dedicated her career to serving military and veteran students, believes in normalizing the veteran experience on campus. While serving in the military is often associated with combat, trauma and stress, she emphasizes that it’s impossible to generalize a person’s experience. Many of the same skills and experiences — project management, diplomacy, discipline — translate well to civilian life. 

“There are policies in place to make their lives as easy as possible at SJSU from admissions to graduation,” Morales says. “We have programs and events and we’re here to aid not only with their transition from military to education to career, but also to support the whole person along the way.”

Earlier this year, SJSU was named one of the Best Colleges in the West for veterans by the U.S. News and World Report. This distinction means that SJSU has worked hard to establish wraparound services for military-connected students.

SJSU's Veteran Resource Center offers comprehensive services for military-connected students. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hayes Ocampo.

SJSU’s Veteran Resource Center offers comprehensive services for military-connected students. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hayes Ocampo.

“Veterans are one of the most diverse groups on a given campus population because they come from all types of backgrounds and cultures,” Morales adds. “By enlisting, they chose to do something that only 2% of the United States population chooses to do.”

This Veterans Day, when thanking a veteran for their service or acknowledging the sacrifices they’ve made, Thornburg asks that civilians recognize their humanity.

“Even if you do not fully understand where we’re coming from, see us as humans,” she says. “We’re not robots who just came out of the service. We’ve done amazing things, and we’re still transitioning to civilian life. Some of us may recover easier than others. But so much of connecting with veterans is reaching out your hand and saying, ‘Hey, I see you. I want to know your story.’”

Learn more about SJSU’s Veterans Resource Center.