Do you enjoy helping people? Have you thought of joining the military? Hispanic Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Juan Carlos Cervantes tells us why he joined the Army and how his career unfolded.
Please tell us about your childhood and where you grew up.
I grew up in the William Mead Homes Housing Projects in Los Angeles, CA. Also known as Dog Town Projects for the predominant gang in the neighborhood and for the nearby animal shelter (or dog pound) which rumor has it was the basis for the gang name, William Mead Homes contained all of those elements you might expect from housing projects. Dog Town was a tough place to spend a childhood; violence, drug use, and other forms of compromising behavior were typical activities children were forced to confront. I am the second child of an immigrant mother who raised three children on her own. Though the conditions were difficult, the resiliency one develops from these early childhood challenges helps create flexible, adaptive, and resilient adults.
Did you go to college, and if so, was being a Hispanic an advantage or a disadvantage?
I did go to college but I cannot state that being Hispanic presented either an advantage or disadvantage.
What is your job title and what industry do you work in?
I’m a recently retired military officer who served for a combined total of over 28 years. My military service includes roughly 24 years of active duty and 4 years of California National Guard service. I have served as a junior enlisted soldier, a non-commissioned officer, and a commissioned officer. I retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served in Germany, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and several locations in the U.S.A. I currently work at an adult education campus which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, in Syracuse, NY. In March of 2016, I became the Director of Students Services at SUNY Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center (EOC).
Can you please tell us about your career path, i.e. how did you get to your current position?
I enlisted in the Army after a year of college with the goal of maturing a little and finding money to help me fund my college education and complete law school. I had never intended to make the military a career but after nearly three decades of service, it turns out to have been a wonderful and rewarding experience. I joined the Syracuse EOC as part of my goal of continuing to serve while fulfilling a need to help others who are experiencing challenges in the achievement of their life’s goals.
Please describe the things you do on a typical day.
A typical day involves doing all we can to assist people to enroll in courses and programs which will enable them to find employment or prepare them for acceptance into a college or a vocational institution.
What did you learn the hard way in your career and how did that happen?
The hardest lessons I learned during my military service involved empowering subordinates and underwriting their mistakes when I did. The willingness to properly delegate tasks and manage their completion with little to no interruption on my part was difficult. I’m an individual who appreciates control and order, so releasing the reigns was a challenge. But as my leadership began to form, I took pleasure from watching my subordinates succeed without my influence.
On a good day when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
In my current role, I’m always excited to come across individuals who visit our campus and are enthusiastic and motivated about seizing the opportunities we offer. I enjoy hearing them describe their visions for their future and their anticipation of a better life.
When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
Chaos is a normal part of life and managing chaos without falling apart is an expectation of management. I rely on people who know and place a lot of value in their input; then, I rely on my judgment to plan a solution.
How stressful is your job?
In comparison to my military career, my current job is low stress, with equally high reward.
Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Yes. I accepted this job because it provides personal reward and satisfaction while having little effect on my ability to share time with my family. It’s a perfect situation.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?
I’m not sure. I didn’t do the research. I accepted this job for the intrinsic reward and not the financial compensation.
What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in your career?
My military career contained several rewarding moments, but I have to admit that the one which I most appreciate was completing the Army Ranger Course. That course took me well beyond what I believed were my limits.
What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced?
The year-long separations from my family during my operational deployments presented the greatest personal challenges. Nothing is more hurtful than having to say goodbye to your spouse and children, and then enduring the months of separation until you’re re-joined.
On a lighter note, I wanted to quit Ranger School every day.
What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
The US Army requires at least a baccalaureate degree to receive a commission; leadership skills, emotional maturity, and a good work ethic contribute to military career success. My current position working for the SUNY Syracuse EOC requires a master’s degree. Because we service a large number of low-income students with little education, including many from other countries, employees on our campus should possess a high degree of empathy and compassion for those in that demographic looking to improve their circumstances.
What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Do it if you take pleasure in serving those in need.
Do you feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
There is nothing like finding a job which provides personal reward and satisfaction, pays well, and does not infringe on home life. It’s the sweet spot, for sure.