November 11th is observed as Veterans Day in the US — a chance for us to honor and show our gratitude for everyone who has served our country. One local Veteran, Jaslyn Bridges, is in her last year at Montclair State University, but she isn’t a typical undergraduate student. Instead, she entered Montclair State at age 32 after serving as a Security Forces Staff Sergeant (E5), “police officer” in civilian terms, with The United States Air Force (USAF) for five years. Currently, she is in the reserves at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County, NJ, and dedicates one weekend per month to training at the base to keep up her skills. Jaslyn has served her country in total for 8 ½ years. We had a chance to sit down and have a conversation with Jaslyn about her background and her connection to Montclair. Read on to learn more about Jaslyn and her journey with The United States Air Force in honor of Veteran’s Day.
(Photo credit: McGuire Air Force Base Photo Lab)
Joining the military was something Jaslyn had thought of when she worked in law enforcement as a Security Officer at Rutgers University. At that time, she was 21, married, and pursuing an associate degree at Camden County College. “I had my daughter when I was 22 years old. I stopped my studies because providing for my family became my priority.”
Jaslyn was born and raised in Camden, NJ. She didn’t come from a military family, but her older brother Andre supported her decision to join the Air Force. After his death at 29, she felt she needed to keep her promise to him that she would join.
At age 27, Jaslyn joined the USAF because she wanted to pursue a career, not just have a job. She also wanted to see if she could rise to the physical and mental challenges and meet the inherent discipline that went along with the job. She wanted something tangible to be proud of and to motivate and show her daughter to keep pushing forward to the top. Jaslyn found that “you’re strong enough, even when you think you’re not. It was challenging, especially physically, and it taught me structure.”
She was stationed in Delaware and Oklahoma stateside and deployed to Kuwait for seven months. “The pre-deployment training before Kuwait was very demanding. We would get up very early, around 4AM, I’d have my M4 Rifle and an M9 Pistol strapped to me. We’d ride out in Humvees into the middle of nowhere for two to three days and would do training exercises like building clearing and hostage scenarios. It was very physically challenging.”
(Photo credit: SSGt Chris Graham)
She spoke about the difficulties of being in Kuwait, a foreign land with different customs, and felt that she and her fellow troops bonded there and became family. “All you have is each other.” She didn’t experience combat there but had to be on alert mentally and physically at all times. Currently, Jaslyn is in the reserves at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County, NJ, and dedicates one weekend per month to training at the base to keep up her skills.
Adjusting Back to Civilian Life
While on active duty, Jaslyn pursued her Associate degree with the Community College of the Airforce in Criminal Justice to advance her career. This motivated her to return to Camden County College to finish her Associate’s degree in Public Relations after active duty.
Jaslyn knew she wanted to get her degree in Public Relations and is now pursuing her bachelor’s full-time at Montclair State. The GI Bill is helping her achieve that goal. She researched many colleges and chose Montclair State for its excellent Veterans Program.
“Adjusting to civilian life can be difficult. The Veterans Program at Montclair State has a very supportive team, and they make you feel like you belong.” She also complimented the school for taking mental health issues seriously.
Montclair State’s Veterans Program
Montclair State University has accepted students on the GI Bill since the 1950s. Its formal Veterans Program was established in 2009. Jonathan Gubitosi, Veterans Advising Certification and Engagement Coordinator, and Leslie Crowley, Veteran Student Services Specialist, lead the program. Each year, the program services approximately 275 Veterans; this fall, 85 new Vets entered Montclair State as undergraduates.
Veterans can have a tough time adjusting to college life directly from the military, where they are told what to wear, what to eat, and what to do every day. Also, many former military students, like Jaslyn, are older and have children, a job, and other responsibilities. Jon and Leslie are not only academic advisers, but they view each Veteran from a holistic perspective and help them with what they need to be successful as a person.
“It’s a large school, and we try to make it feel more like a community for them,” Leslie said. An effort towards this was the building and completion of a Veterans Lounge this year, where vets can gather and get to know other classmates who served in branches of the U.S. Military.
The two main areas of study for Veterans are business and health, but their interests range from biology to law enforcement to theatre. “As a whole, Veterans have a higher retention rate than the general student population and have a slightly better GPA because they tend to be older, have more experience, and are more disciplined,” Leslie added.
“I will be getting my bachelor’s next year and continuing to my master’s at Montclair [State],” said Jaslyn. After she graduates, she would like to continue working for the government, in an embassy, or perhaps in the military or public affairs. When asked about the best way to honor Veterans on Veterans Day or anytime, Jaslyn said, “Hug them a little bit tighter, a little longer, because sometimes that’s all we need is a hug. And say a prayer.”