Thomas DiStefano, ‘10 standing on campus

For many students, it takes a lot of determination to get through college as they manage full-time jobs, family responsibilities and school loans. For 26-year-old Thomas DiStefano ’10, a senior and student veteran, it’s taken a whole different kind of persistence.

Imagine this. You’re a high school senior enrolled in the Army Reserves. On September 11, 2001, terrorists attack United States soil. In 2002, you trade your high school cap and gown for Army fatigues and prepare to serve your country – not once, but three times.

“Serving my country has always been important to me. I believe in civil service. We all have the obligation to serve in one way or another,” Thomas says. He opted for the Army’s split option program. He didn’t have to choose college over the military service, as long as he could manage the transition from camouflage to college.

Called to serve
Thomas deferred his enrollment to UNCG because he knew he’d soon be deployed. In January 2003, he was called up for a year and a half under Operation Enduring Freedom, during which time he traveled the United States to help units mobilize. He provided training, conducted classes and assisted with simulations by playing the role of terrorist.

Thomas finally began his freshman year in the fall of 2004. Not even a semester in, he was deployed again. He returned in July, just in time to once again begin his freshman year and was able to complete two years of school before being called up a third time – this time to Iraq.

“The transition wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Life really does progress without you while you’re gone.” According to Thomas, emails and care packages, especially from Dr. Cherry Callahan in Student Affairs, made a tremendous impact. “I don’t know if she realizes how much it meant to me, but it was great to know there were people here on campus who cared. It really made me want to come back.”

In Iraq, Thomas ran motor pool operations, overseeing 29 vehicles and always making sure readiness level was high. He came back to UNCG in July 2008 and since then has been able to finish his junior and senior years. While in Iraq, he re-enlisted for another six years, until 2013. “When the time comes, I imagine I’ll re-enlist again.”

An advocate for fellow student veterans
Since coming to UNCG, Thomas has been active in more than the military. He’s served on a number of committees on campus and as a student senator, a Resident Advisor mentoring more than 500 students, and as President of the Student Veterans Association, a cause he deeply believes in. Thomas received the Veteran Resident Advisor of the Year Award for his efforts.

“I think veterans’ issues are something people underestimate. This is the one group that will be there, who will advocate for you, support you with anything you need. There are no limits.”

 

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations