By NICK MEYERS
Back in ’78, Daniel Kester was a young airman recruit. One stripe on his shoulder, no more than a year out of high school, his second lieutenant asked him, “Kester! You ever think about going to college?”
Truth was, he hadn’t. College was for lawyers and bankers and senators’ sons; he was the son of a fireman who grew up in Ohio.
“Kester,” said his lieutenant. “I’m ordering you to go to college!” Kester told his officer he didn’t think he could do that. His officer didn’t think so either. Even still the officer told him to get into his car and drove him to the base education office. He sat in the car, engine running, and told Kester he’d wait there until he signed up for a college course.
“I was immediately addicted to learning,” Kester said. “I think about him every day and I’m thankful that he saw something in me that I didn’t see.”
Kester hopes to find his old lieutenant someday and tell him how his life was impacted by that almost order.
“I can’t wait to tell him what those words meant to me. It’s a constant reminder to me to help others in the same way.”
Kester is Pima Community College’s new director of veterans and military affiliated service, a newly created position to oversee veterans’ affairs at the college.
The new addition comes following mishandling of veterans’ files, which led to a temporary suspension of veterans’ benefits at PCC in March.
“In creating this position, we are ensuring that our student veterans consistently receive the best possible administrative services,” Chancellor Lee Lambert said in a press release.
Kester intends to incorporate a series of student success courses, which he hopes to teach, as well as establish a veteran’s center on every campus like the one on Downtown Campus.
Additionally, he plans on digitizing aspects of student veteran records to streamline various processes.
“I’ve been really impressed with everyone here and really impressed with their willingness to support veterans,” Kester said.
His background in education coupled with his military experience makes him uniquely qualified for Pima’s new position, which coincidently opened up shortly after he finished writing his dissertation on the transition of military personnel from active duty to post-secondary education.
“During my research I’ve always said, ‘people spend more time planning their vacations than their careers,’” he said.
He aims to improve career planning and sees his time at Pima as a counselor to student veterans.
“I’ve always been a counselor at heart,” he said.
“My very first teaching gig was at a community college,” Kester says. “And I’ve always felt like I had it right the first time at community college.”
Kester began his teaching career at Owens Community College in Ohio after spending 10 years in the Air Force. During his time in the military, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
“It’s kinda like an efficiency expert,” Kester said. “So you look at processes whether it’s an assembly line or a bank or an institution such as here. I look at, say, our certification process and I can see where the bottlenecks are and where there are opportunities for improvement.”
Many student veterans at Pima are already familiar with Kester due to his time spent at the college researching his dissertation, during which he worked closely with PCC student veterans.
Pima student Adrienne Lujan, a six-year Navy veteran, was one of the students interviewed by Kester during his research.
“We had no idea what the future was gonna hold. We had no idea he was gonna walk through that door and be the director,” she said. “That initial contact, though, did make it easy, I think, for everybody.”
Lujan also stressed the importance of having a military veteran to act as an advocate for service members at the college within the administration.
“We need a communication system with the upper echelon of Pima College,” she said. “Hopefully Dr. Kester along with student veterans have a chance to attend steering committees where issues can be addressed as they come up.”
During his dissertation, Kester discovered that while student veterans rated Pima’s veteran services highly, they didn’t necessarily take advantage of the services due to what he identified as culture shock.
“They really felt abandoned by the military,” Kester said.
“They built a military identity for four years, and then they only give them five days to go ‘OK, go find a job, here’s how to write a resume.’ You can’t change that identity in five days. That’s the whole idea behind this position, is to ease that transition.”
Sean Lore, a two-and-half-year Army veteran, agrees.
“Transition is very hard. It’s just a different world – a totally different world – and it’s hard to connect with people,” he said.
Kester also helps student veterans make the transition from active duty to community college. His ideas and passion for helping veterans to not only attend, but succeed, at Pima embody the goal of his position.
“What is cool is the young kids that are comin’ right out of four years, they have the whole world open to them.
“So they come out, they probably don’t have a degree, they don’t have that much experience, they’re like ‘I can do something different. I don’t have to do what I did in the military.’
“So it’s a wonderful group to talk to. It’s exciting, you can kinda live vicariously through them,” he said.
“Just say ‘wow you’re 21 again and you can go anywhere you want: you can go into the arts, you can go into music, you can go into journalism, you can go into fire fighting,’ and I just think that’s so exciting to sit down with them and choose a career.”