Jim’s Story

During my senior year of high school, it was assumed by me and the rest of my family that I would go to college. My grandfather on my mother’s side was the only grandparent without a college degree. One of my grandmothers had a doctorate. My parents both had college degrees, may dad had multiple master’s degrees. I had a scholarship to the University of Alaska. Since my grandparents and dad had attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I decided to go to college there.

I really enjoyed history, but didn’t think I should get a degree in it. I thought the only thing you could do with a history degree was teach, and I didn’t think I would be very good at that. So, I wasn’t sure what I should study, just that I should go to college.

It was a big adventure. I grew up on the Kenai Peninsula, and couldn’t remember ever going up to Fairbanks. It seemed so far away, even though it was in the same state. I decided on the spur of the moment to choose electrical engineering as a major. After failing pre-calculus, I changed my major to Journalism and Broadcasting. My dad worked in radio, and I had helped him a few times. It seemed like something I would do well at, and could be useful. I didn’t have a passion for it though. My grades dropped, and I lost my scholarship.

We didn’t have much money, so when I lost my scholarship I decided to go into the military to pay for school. I had always felt a call to military service. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II and my dad had been an officer in the Army, and afterward in the Army National Guard. The Marine recruiter told me the benefits were all the same (which is NOT true), but that they were the toughest. So, I joined the Marine Reserve. I don’t regret joining the Marines, in fact I take a lot of pride in it. However, the Army or Air National Guard would have been a much better choice for someone trying to get through college. The National Guard offers state college benefits in addition to the federal college benefits offered by the other reserve components. I figured this out, and did a branch transfer to the Air National Guard.

I also decided to work at a part-time job to cover the non-tuition expenses (food, books, rent, vehicle, insurance, gas, electricity, phone, etc.…). I was hired by the University Police Department as a student officer. It was the best paying student job on campus, and they always had work. In fact, I started working close to 60 hours each week, most of it at night. This really hurt my grades, and since my grades were tied to my eligibility for a student job, I found myself in trouble.

There was an opportunity for a full-time position with the Air National Guard at Eielson Air Force Base (near Fairbanks), and I applied. I was selected, and thought I could now keep going to school. I did try to go to school for about a year after being hired full-time, but eventually stopped. This was in the 1990’s, the U.S. military was still in the middle east from the first Gulf War and things were heating up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I found myself deployed multiple times in support of both of those operations. We also deployed to support the war on drugs in South and Central America, and participating in multiple exercises from NATO to Asia. Additionally, I was pushed to attend professional military education and more technical training for my job in the Air Guard. This was before online and distance learning options existed. It didn’t seem feasible to continue my college education.

In the early 2000’s one of my supervisors talked to me about the Community College of the Air Force. They said I could earn an Associates of Applied Science in a field related to my job. I was in Combat Crew Communications, mostly working with radios and cryptographic systems for air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. I was able to take a few college courses through the University of Alaska offices on the Air Force Base and get credit for military training and experience I had to earn an Associates of Applied Science in Information Systems Technology. I felt great about this!

A few years later, when I changed jobs to become a First Sergeant, I used the training and experience from that job to earn another Associate of Applied Science. This one was in Human Resource Management. This position was one of the most challenging and most rewarding of my military career. I dealt with people 24/7. I was responsible for mentoring, coaching, correcting behavior and performance, recognizing and rewarding behavior and performance, mediating, investigating issues, and advising leadership and subordinate supervisors. It was so rewarding, but also exhausting.

In 2010 I was selected for a position at Clear Air Force Station. This was a remote assignment, and we were provided with internet in our rooms. It was slow compared to today, but better than what I had at home. Online courses were becoming widely available through several accredited colleges, and I decided to restart my bachelor degree program. I enrolled in American Military University (AMU). It had a great reputation and was military friendly. It was part of the American Public University System. I was a much better student the second time around!

Once I was brought back to Eielson Air Force Base in 2012, my college career was put on hold again. I was privileged to attend courses through National Defense University in Washington D.C., and a leadership seminar hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These were masters and doctorate level experiences, and really opened my eyes to what was available.

After I retired from the military in 2019, I was hired by the University of Alaska in their Human Resources department. This was a great fit for the training and experience I had gained in the last 10 years of my military career, and it allowed me to restart my bachelor degree. I’m currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Applied Management program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

What do you wish you had known when you were a high school senior?

  • Not everyone should go to college, at least not right away. You need to do something valuable for you and for society, but it doesn’t have to be college.
  • Moving up doesn’t equal success. Finding satisfaction in your work, and enjoying the time you spend with coworkers is much more important than your position or pay grade.
  • There are different types of authority. Authority that comes with being in a certain high-up position is actually the weakest form of authority. If you truly want to influence people, work on your personal authority. You do this by being a person of good character (trustworthy), giving the best effort you are able in the moment (some days you don’t have 100% to give, if you only have 79% to give that day, give it), being competent in your job, and demonstrate good judgement (be accountable for your thinking and why you do the things you do). Do these things and people will notice. You might be the lowest paid person on the team, but your advice will be the most sought after and you will find that you exert influence far above expectations. When this happens, use your powers for good or you will lose that influence and personal authority immediately.
  • I didn’t know it in high school, but I have the greatest sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when I help or share with others.
  • The attitude is everything cliché really is true. People respond to you based on how they perceive you. Even if that perception is skewed. This may not seem fair, but it’s true.