Heroes in the Hallway

Oct 30, 2019Andrea Vasquez

San Jacinto College is proud to honor and serve all of the men and women who have served and are currently serving our country. In addition to serving veteran students and their dependents, the College also has a number of administrators, staff, and faculty who are still leading lives of service through educating and mentoring others.

Dr. Alexander Okwonna, San Jacinto College dean of health and natural sciences, served in the U.S. Army prior to beginning his career at the College as a pharmacy technology faculty member. Like many other veterans, Dr. Okwonna says that the bonds and friendships formed while in the military make the entire experience worth it.

"I really enjoyed getting to meet people from all around the U.S. and the world over," he said. "I enjoyed bonding with others, the friendships, and the camaraderie."

While in the Army, Okwonna was a sergeant working as a 62E (Echo) MOS, Army Heavy Construction Equipment Operator. He credits his leadership abilities to his time serving in the military, adding that it taught him things about himself he never realized were possible.

"I learned everything about being a leader from military service, including discipline, consistency, ethics, and respect," he said. "Before I joined the Army, I didn't really know my limits. The mind starts to play tricks on you when you get to extremes — it tells you that you can't go faster, can't keep running, can't push through the barrier, but you almost always can. Knowing that you have that capacity somewhere inside you not only gives you confidence in whatever it is you're doing. It's also the difference between success and failure, and for soldiers, often life and death. You can learn leadership and management skills anywhere, but the Army gives you the opportunity to learn it when you're younger and carry the lifelong lesson of caring about others."

U.S. Navy veteran and San Jacinto College government professor Dr. Brenda Kaye "B.K." Silva comes from a family of public servants and educators. Growing up, Silva was affectionately known as an Air Force "military brat," since she and her family traveled everywhere due to the numerous duty stations Air Force personnel are assigned.

After completing her service as a sailor, Silva went on to earn a master's degree in political science and public administration at Midwestern State University, then completed a juris doctorate at Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Looking back at her time as a military dependent and active duty sailor, in addition to visiting all 50 states and all seven continents, Silva adds that one thing her military experience reinforced was her love of learning.

"My military experience confirmed that it is equally important to be a lifelong learner, a good follower, a dependable teammate, and a principled leader," Silva said. "In the U.S. military, you are a part of a maturation process where people of all ages, cultures, and experience come together, strive for excellence, and seek to "reinvent" themselves into the professionals that their families, communities, and our nation can be proud of. I consider our profession as educators to be a fine expression of our patriotism. As a member of the San Jac family, I believe our collective efforts to be an investment in the success of our nation."

When it comes to teaching veteran students, Silva expressed that while every veteran's life is unique, as brothers and sisters in service, their common ground is knowing that through training, study, striving, and "reaching," any obstacle can be overcome.

"As a veteran educator, I can listen, relate, and remind: Two are one, one is none," she said. "There is strength in our numbers. We can do this. Leave no one behind. A purposeful life is one worth living and sharing. Human beings are resourceful, resilient, reliable, and ready to take on life's challenges with a roar! And when we find ourselves worn, weary, and at our wit's end, we are not alone. We are vigilant and caring. We march on."

Monique Stigler, also a U.S. Navy veteran and San Jacinto College student, says that not having the daily structure of her military routine has been the hardest challenge transitioning back into civilian life. A psychology major, Stigler wants to advocate for other veterans who are struggling with the transition from military life to the civilian sector, especially when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.

According to a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 20 veterans take their own lives each day.

"I want to help veterans like me," Stigler said. "Many people don't understand what it's like to be a vet. When we go to the hospitals for treatment, they don't understand what we are trying to say, and I just want to be that bridge in helping veterans get the type of care that they need so that we can eradicate that 22 a day."

Stigler also pointed out that being in a place where you can thrive is one of the biggest motivators. Being a mom to her 3-year-old son is her ultimate priority, and part of Stigler's decision to attend San Jacinto College was the flexible course schedule options.

"Having a flexible schedule with the ability to plan my classes around my son's child care is important," she said. "The San Jac veteran centers are also wonderful. They take the time to guide you through the process of applying, selecting classes, and helping you decide on a clear path for your future. They don't push you or make you feel like you are just another number. I can grab a snack, print assignments, talk to a counselor, do homework, and there's always other veterans around to help me when I need them."