ESTEP Helps Student Veterans Gain Professional Experience
By Eric Breier
Patricia Reily has excellent timing when it comes to helping Cal State San Marcos student veterans.
For Jason Sneddon, it was chatting with Reily at an Operation Connect event. For Ankit Panchal, it was simply waking up from a nap at the right moment.
In both cases, chance meetings with Reily led to internships through the Energy System Technology Evaluation Program (ESTEP).
Sneddon is one of 32 current participants in ESTEP while Panchal is among 58 students who have completed the program.
ESTEP, which is funded through the Office of Naval Research, provides paid internship opportunities for veterans majoring in STEM fields. CSUSM manages the program, which helps student veterans gain professional experience while participating in alternative energy research for the Navy.
“Our vision for our veterans is crossing the commencement stage with that diploma in one hand and that great job offer in the other hand,” said Reily, CSUSM’s director of Veterans Services. “That’s what we aspire to for every single one of our veterans.”
ESTEP internships are available for student veterans who attend universities within geographical proximity to San Diego County, Ventura County, Monterey and Oahu, Hawaii.
CSUSM’s ESTEP management team includes four veterans: Ericka Korb, project coordinator; Moses Maddox, veterans retention counselor; Priscilla Juan, outreach and communications specialist; and Jamie Rangel, administrative support.
“We really get to know our veterans, and that makes a big difference because they have unique needs,” Reily said.
Reily said the program was started to help the Department of Defense in its goal to employ veterans and wounded warriors as well as fill the shortage of professionals in STEM careers.
The ESTEP team works to overcome misperceptions that some student veterans have as they transition to civilian life.
Juan said that Student Veterans of America estimates that 30 percent of student veterans are pursuing STEM majors, a number she believes would be higher if transitioning veterans had more confidence in how their military training translates to STEM careers.
Juan pointed to helicopter mechanics as one example. Their skills translate well to engineering, but some might be intimidated by the prospect of trying to earn an engineering degree.
“The challenge we have now is changing that mentality right from the inception,” Juan said. “If you’ve been a helicopter mechanic for eight years, you have the experience and you have the practical knowledge. Now you just need the formal training.”
Maddox also plays a large role in helping student veterans realize the myriad options available to them. He tries to help veterans look beyond the pragmatic approach that many take toward post-military schooling and careers.
“A lot of veterans don’t see what transition really means,” Maddox said, “and it’s an opportunity to reinvent yourself and go be whatever you want to be.”
Another common barrier to a STEM education and career is being eliminated thanks to the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017. Also known as the Forever GI Bill, it recently passed through the House of Representatives and Senate with unanimous bipartisan support and is expected to be signed by President Trump.
The Forever GI Bill eliminates the 15-year time limit that veterans previously had to use their GI Bill benefits after separating from the military. The expanded bill also includes extended benefits for STEM majors, who may need more time to complete graduation requirements.
“The Forever GI Bill will help tremendously,” Juan said. “We found veterans are either intimidated by the curriculum itself in pursing the degree or intimidated by incurring debt. Now the concern about debt is gone.”
Sneddon has been an ESTEP intern for more than a year, working in research and development at SPAWAR. He works about 20 hours each week when school is in session and full time during the summer.
After serving four years in the Marines, Sneddon planned to move home to Texas where he had a job lined up with a government contractor. However, the company didn’t win the contract and Sneddon decided to enroll at MiraCosta before transferring to CSUSM as a computer science major.
When Sneddon interviewed for the SPAWAR internship, he was asked about his experience with various programming languages.
“I said I had no experience to every single one,” Sneddon said. “But I told him I’d be willing to learn and I’m a pretty quick learner. He ended up needing someone with basic programming skills, so it worked out and I’ve learned a lot along the way.
“The ESTEP program is a holistic program. Not only do they help you with an internship and getting on-the-job experience before you graduate, but if I need any help with the VA or have questions about the GI Bill or just a general question, I can go to them and they’ll help me.”
Panchal was working overnight shifts as a security guard while attending CSUSM full time during the day when he had his chance meeting with Reily. When she found out that he was a computer science major, she said, “How about an internship where you can actually be working in your field?”
Panchal spent two semesters working on a team at SPAWAR on energy-efficiency research. The experience proved invaluable as he landed a job offer from Northrop Grumman last November – seven months before he graduated from CSUSM.
“For people who are hesitant about applying, just do it,” said Panchal, who served four years in the Marines. “It doesn’t mean you have to take an internship, but it opens up the door and gives you options. It’s a great résumé-builder and a great opportunity.”