Veteran Don Cleveland enjoys his college experience inside, outside of class 

In this issue’s Spotlight, meet 12-year Air Force veteran Don Cleveland, a junior history major going to college full time, engaging with both the Veterans Club and Non-Traditional Student Organization, and playing on the Table Tennis Club’s jayvee tournament team.

Q. Where are you from?
A. I was born right here in Oswego, at the hospital. I grew up in Mexico, 12 miles east of here. I went to Mexico Academy High School.

Q. What did you do after high school?
A. I enlisted in the Air Force in August 2000. Being from a small town, I wanted to get out and do things. I wanted a better chance to make a life for myself and try something different, and the military gave me that opportunity. I always wanted to go to college. I’m pursuing my degree a lot later than most because I was in the Air Force for 12 years. I’m first-generation college. I didn’t actually think I could go right after high school due to my financial situation.

Q. What kind of training did you receive in the Air Force?
A. Originally, it was survival equipment—parachutes, life rafts and stuff in that realm. Later, I packed parachutes specifically for Air Force Special Forces—nobody really knows about them, but they exist. After that, it was less parachutes and life rafts—though I still did that occasionally—it was more pertaining to pilots and equipment they used to help their missions.

Q. Were you deployed, particularly to any combat zones?
A. I didn’t see a lot of combat, but almost everywhere I went overseas was considered a combat zone. Qatar was my first deployment and also my second, though the second time I was forward deployed to Djibouti, Africa, where I was able to help out a rescue unit out of Japan. Then there was Kuwait, and I forward deployed to Iraq. There was a change in regulations on life rafts—I had to crawl on top of C-130s while a crew chief held my legs, and reset the gauge of the 3,000-PSI (raft inflator) bottle. It was windy up there, but it was a cool experience. The base got mortared a couple of times. It was weird when they gave me a gun and a flak vest, because where I had been deployed, it wasn’t like that.

Q. Why did you leave the service?
A. I figured I did enough. I was aging and my body wasn’t responding the way it used to. I separated as an E-5.

Q. What was adjustment to civilian life like?
A. It’s weird, because (when I was in) it was like, “I am the Air Force.” When I’m not, “Then what am I now?” I was barely a man the last time I was a civilian—I was 20. I left that world for a reason, but it took me a while to figure out how to be in this one. It was hard. I’d wake up early and I’d be flustered because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. It was almost scary, for lack of a better word. You get pretty beat up (physically) while you’re in, and I filed for disability and got approved. I took it day by day. I spent a lot of time with my family. I talked to other vets. I went to counseling at the VA, both in Oswego and Syracuse. I was no longer part of something bigger than myself, and that bothered me.

Q. How did you arrive at a plan for how to proceed with your life?
A. I just kind of pushed through it. College was a good option. It’s one of the reasons I went in (the military) in the first place. I had the opportunity and the funding was there. I went to Cayuga Community College in Fulton and I really enjoyed it. I studied business administration there. I got my associate’s degree, graduated cum laude. I enrolled here as a history major. There are a lot of (career) options; I’ll keep my doors as open as possible. History teaches you a strong skillset. I’m not a great writer, but I like the research aspect. It does make you analyze and think outside the box. I like that I can choose a different viewpoint than my professor and I can still be correct, because I use evidence to support it.

Q. What have the college’s professors been like for you?
A. Dr. (Kenneth) Marshall is my adviser. He was great (in class). I loved him. I really liked Murat Yasar and Leo Hernandez. They don’t talk to me like I’m a kid, they talk to me like a friend, almost as an equal. I really appreciate that. They don’t water it down for me, they don’t give me special treatment, but they give me a really fair shake. It’s made my experience a lot better. I can go to them and talk to them and ask them questions and they’re very approachable.

Q. And you’re active in the college’s Veterans Club.
A. I am. Last year, I was the president. This year, I’m event coordinator. Our meetings are decent size, sometimes 10, sometimes upwards of 20 people. I know there are more veterans on campus, but there’s a good group of us—an unspoken-bond sort of thing. It’s very relaxing.

Q. How does it feel to you to be a non-traditional student at Oswego?
A. I’m pretty comfortable with myself, so it’s not a huge ordeal. Sure, I get stared at or get asked some pretty lame questions. They might just be curious. It is what it is, but it’s not that I don’t feel accepted. Overall, it’s a good experience. It amazes them when I tell them I’ve been to 22 countries.

Q. Are you involved in the Non-Traditional Students Organization?
A. I’ve been to a couple of the meetings. I cooperate with people like Ben Parker and Sarah Wehrle (in Extended Learning). Ben helped me enroll—I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Q. I understand you’re on the ping-pong team; how did you get involved?
A. I saw a tryout posted on Laker Life. I tried out and made the team. We made a trip to RIT last year, and we went to Cornell and played. I’m the treasurer this year. I enjoy the game and the other players so much, I decided to become an officer.

Q. What else do you like to do in your down time?
A. I just relax on the weekends. I have a girlfriend. She has two kids. I own a house with her. I try to spend a lot of time with family—I didn’t see them a lot over the years. Then again, I’m also very spontaneous. I like making a last-second decision (for example) to go to Canada for the weekend.

Q. What can you tell us about your family?
A. My parents live in Mexico. My siblings spread out, but we’re all back in New York except one in Florida. They all have kids.