CUSSW student Chris Villatoro and his megawatt smile have been captured on camera. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Villatoro is one of three military veterans (along with another Marine and an Army vet) to tell their personal stories of transitioning to civilian life for the end-of-2012 online fundraising campaign launched by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA. Go to YouTube video.
A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, IAVA advocates for policies that would improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
According to IAVA, Villatoro's story illustrates the "spirit of service"—something that may be unfamiliar to many Americans given that less than one percent of our population has served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
Villatoro was in the Marines for eight years, from 2000 to 2008, during which he served three tours of duty in Iraq.
Originally from Whittier, California, a city near Los Angeles, Villatoro was the first in his family to enter the military. And then, upon leaving the military, he became the first to go to college, earning first an associate arts degree in behavioral and social sciences at Pasadena City College and then a B.A. in political science (with a minor in public policy) at the University of California Berkeley.
And now he is a Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) Management Fellow at Columbia's School of Social Work, working towards an M.S. (expected in 2014).
But if his story has a positive outcome, Villatoro has found the transition to civilian life "kind of tough," as he puts it in the video. In a previous interview with IAVA in support of its campaign to end vet unemployment (posted on March 26, 2012), he described the challenge:
After I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in June of 2008 (during the height of the recession), I found myself without a job or any proper training outside a military standpoint. I went through numerous interviews over several months after my discharge, but was deemed unqualified for all the positions that I applied for because I lacked higher education. At this point in my life, I felt extremely weak and vulnerable.
In the video, Villatoro credits his best friend from high school, who had joined the army and gotten out the year before him, with showing him the ropes and providing "peer counseling" on how best to utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other educational benefits that are administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
While at Berkeley, Villatoro served as president of a student-veterans group and, though still undecided, thought he might spend the next phase of his career helping other vets. "Being a vet is just a part of me, just one piece of puzzle that makes me me," he reflects toward the end of the short film. But if he doesn't know exactly what he'll be doing in ten years, he suspects he'll "be working with the veteran population, in one manner or the other," he adds.
In an email to the Communications Office, Villatoro reported that he is now interning as a counselor at the Harlem Vet Center, where he has found a "great mentor and guide" in his field supervisor, Jamall Pollock. The field placement has also provided an opportunity to look for a method that will help more veterans "bridge the gap between military service and the 'civilian world'...through education," he wrote.
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Image: Screen shot of Chris Villatoro talking to Student Services Director Karma Lowe.