New Veterans Services Director Reflects on Meaning of Service
By Brian Hiro
Paul Tontz is still fairly new to the job of director of Veterans Services at Cal State San Marcos, having started in July. But the military has been in his blood for life.
Tontz comes from a Navy family. He joined the Navy himself after earning a biology degree from the University of San Diego before leaving early to pursue a career helping support collegiate athletes. Years later, upon completing a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Denver, Tontz returned to the service as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve from 2009-18.
All that military experience is now CSUSM’s gain, as Tontz helps support a population of student veterans that is the highest per capita in the California State University system.
As Veterans Day approaches, we talk with Tontz about the holiday, why he came to CSUSM, and his fascinating family background.
Question: Why was this position at CSUSM appealing to you?
Paul Tontz: This career opportunity was appealing to me because it has given me the chance to use my military and student affairs background, education, and research interests to support a population of students who I highly treasure.
Q: What does Veterans Day mean to you personally?
PT: Veterans Day to me means a celebration of service. I think it is vital to remember not just our student veterans, but our active-duty and military-dependent counterparts who continue to serve or have also served alongside our veterans. The day is a chance to recognize the talents, experiences and abilities that our veterans sacrificed on a daily basis.
Q: What were your primary duties in the Navy Reserve and what was that experience like?
PT: My primary duties were to provide weather and oceanographic forecasts to our Navy fleet to maintain the safety of our assets in the air, land and sea. However, what I enjoyed most about my role as a Navy Reserve officer was the opportunity to interact with active and reservists in helping them discover and find a path to higher education. Many times my AGs (aerographers) wanted to ask questions about how to get into college, degree planning and financial aid. It is not necessarily the weather.
Q: What can you tell me about your family in terms of military connections?
PT: I come from a long line of Navy personnel, mainly medical officers. My grandfather, Capt. Joseph McGinley, M.D., retired as a Navy pediatrician. My dad and Uncle John Leo were Navy dentists. My Uncle Bill was a Navy orthopedic surgeon. My brother broke the tradition and currently serves as an Air Force flight surgeon. But I would say my greatest inspiration comes from Navy history in our family. I am related to Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first Secretaries of the Navy. Also, my great uncle Leo McGinley was killed aboard the USS Bunker Hill when it was attacked by kamikazes on May 11, 1945.
Q: You’re from a family of 10 children. What was that household like to grow up in?
PT: In a couple words, chaotic and noisy. As one of the only introverts in my family, I was always scrambling for some private, quiet time. As the son of two amazing parents who taught me discipline, love and compassion, I have grown to appreciate my now-adult siblings and teach my students these same values. I can remember my first time living outside of the house on my own: I had to sleep with the TV on to match the level of ambient noise I had grown up with, which provided comfort.
Q: Your dissertation was about the “coming out” experiences of Division I gay athletes. Why was that subject interesting to you?
PT: As a lifelong athlete, sports provided me a safe space to build self-confidence, even in a world that wasn’t exactly friendly to being different. I struggled myself to come out in a climate of sport that wasn’t very supportive. It wasn’t until I began my first career working with student-athletes that I realized that many of my student-athletes were suffering and didn’t have a voice or the ability to truly be themselves. When I learned that many struggled with their mental health and suicide, I was inspired to do research to learn best practices for supporting these athletes in Division I athletics. Supported by an NCAA graduate research grant, my dissertation shared the stories of this marginalized population and helped create some of the positive change we now see in college athletics for LGBT student-athletes.
Q: According to your bio, you have worked in various capacities at about a dozen colleges over the last two decades. What has that kind of nomadic existence been like and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
PT: I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to learn how to become a professional in this field by working at many different types of educational institutions. I gained additional skills as I changed military commands due to my relocations. The nomadic life was exciting, but I am glad to have settled down in San Diego due to being a native San Diegan who grew up in Point Loma/Ocean Beach. The biggest lesson I have learned is that you can never underestimate the power of a great team one works with and the supportive nature of your supervisor. I feel blessed to have found that at CSUSM and treasure the opportunity to get paid to do the work I love in supporting this population.
Waves of Flags, Nov. 8-10
Miniature American flags will be staked in the grass by Forum Plaza, showcasing CSUSM's approximately 1,700 military-connected students on campus.
Veterans Day Celebration, Nov. 9, noon-1 p.m.
Signature celebration event with student and keynote speakers, ROTC color guard and national anthem sung by a student.
Veterans Day Workout, Nov. 10, 6:15-7:15 p.m.
A community workout celebrating current military-connected students as well as active-duty military and veterans in the community. The workout is being hosted at Polarize CrossFit in Oceanside and sponsored by Rookies Sports Bar.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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