Earlier this month, J. Michael Haynie, Ph.D., vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation and executive director of the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families, was appointed by United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough to serve on…
‘The Possibility of Yes’: Jennifer Pluta Helps Student Veterans and Military Service Members Thrive
Jennifer Pluta G’15 has exactly the right mix of experience for her work at as the director of Veteran Career Services. A native of the Binghamton, New York area, Pluta has served in the Army Reserve for 23 years, where she’s a career counselor, a master sergeant, and recently selected for promotion to sergeant major. As career counselor, she leads a team to help fellow soldiers progress in their military careers. It’s like her role at Syracuse, where for nearly 17 years, she’s helped student veterans learn more about, pursue and seize employment opportunities they may have never thought to consider. She also leads the University’s Veterans Affinity Group for faculty and staff. And, with an impressive 100% placement rate connecting student veterans to new careers, Pluta has plenty of insights on the magic behind helping service members and student veterans thrive, and shares these in the Q&A below.
01How did you begin your military service?
After I graduated from Alfred University with a degree in sociology, I felt compelled to achieve a long-held desire of mine to serve. It’s something I always wanted to do and I thought if I didn’t do it, it was never going to happen. I enlisted in the Army Reserve, went to basic training and, soon after that, 9/11 happened. It completely changed the landscape. A lot of people decided to join the military to support their country and the call to serve took on a different meaning. As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, I was deployed to help with operations in Kuwait and Iraq, where I worked in a paving unit to help fortify our positions and create more long-term structures. We had units located in remote areas of the desert, so access to major roads to support ongoing operations was a challenge.
02What got you on the path to career development?
I first felt a calling to help people navigate their career options and life goals while in college, which lead me to interning at the University’s career center. That interest continued during my deployment, where I helped my soldiers with accessing their GI Bill benefits, student loans and other educational assistance programs. When I got back from my deployment, my unit administrators noticed that I was the go-to person who soldiers turned to for questions regarding accessing their education incentives and benefits. That is when he suggested that I re-class as an Army Reserve career counselor. Mind you, I had only been in the military for a few years, so I had no idea that positions like this existed. I was completely blown away that there was a job in the Army whose sole purpose is to support soldiers’ career pathways. It lined up perfectly with my core beliefs and values and the work I was doing anyway. Between my internship and my new role as a career counselor, I knew that I wanted to do similar work in the civilian sector.
03How did your road lead you to Syracuse University?
My husband landed a job in Syracuse after graduating with his master’s degree in engineering, and we moved here shortly before 9/11. I loved the idea of working at a university. Everything with higher education–knowledge, growth and exploration–it’s such a cool industry to be in. I wrote a letter to the director of career services saying that if opportunities became available, I would be delighted to discuss them. Sure enough, an opportunity opened up. It was a temporary position, but it was a pathway into the organization and I knew that if I proved myself, an additional opportunity would present itself. Sure enough, I secured a full-time position as an internship coordinator and, from there, I was promoted to assistant director for internships.
My career continued when the University made an institutional investment and strategic priority to support the veteran and military-connected community. This move resulted in standing up the Office of Veterans and Military Affairs (OVMA) which serves as the University’s single point of entry for all veteran and military-connected students, programs and initiatives. OVMA provides end-to-end services beginning with our dedicated admissions team and ending with Career Services. As the OVMA stood up, the position of assistant director of veteran career services was created. Given my career services experience at the University and my military experience as an Army Reserve career counselor, the position was a perfect match for my skills and experiences. In this role, I work with undergraduate and graduate student veterans on their pathway into careers. Over the last several years, I have built out a robust program and resources that support our veteran community and have subsequently been promoted to director of Veteran Career Services.
04How is your work in the Army Reserve and here at the University connected?
Both my roles complement each other, allowing for me to be a conduit between those two spaces. It’s such a blessing to work here and be able to take my military experience, education and training to help student veterans to achieve what they can. I want them to be the best version of themselves. At the same time, being in the Army Reserve in the career services space, I have been able to help students and University employees who are serving in the Army with their career options. On both sides, there are so many amazing opportunities for veterans and those currently serving, and if you don’t know about them, you can’t ask about what you don’t know. My job is helping to connect it all.
05What is especially rewarding about your work?
I consider myself particularly lucky to do what I’m passionate about and help people follow their dreams. It’s my job to make people’s dreams come true. Too often, veterans have a limited viewpoint, and their aperture on what’s available to them may be limited. When they take a moment and say they had no idea an opportunity existed, it’s really something. You can see them thinking. You can see the wonderment in their eyes. I see it when students do career immersion trips, where we take them to large metropolitan areas to see life in that space and visit employers in that area. So many times, I hear student veterans say, “I didn’t think that employer would be interested in me or my experience.” When you expose them to opportunities and resources, employers, different pipelines, they say they never knew they could really do that. That’s the reward in this work. The realization of what’s possible.
06What do you want student veterans to know?
I always tell my students: Just go for it. If you don’t put it out there, you’ll never know. Life is about timing and luck. If you don’t do it, the answer is no. But if you do do it, there’s the possibility of yes.