Alumni Spotlights

Vanessa Barron, '78: A Life of Service

November 13, 2012 by Lisa M. McMahon, M.A.'09

Maybe if Vanessa (Houston) Barron, '78, hadn't been opening the mail that day in the guidance office of her high school in Philadelphia, she never would have seen the beautiful campus photos in the Niagara University brochure. But she did, and those photos so intrigued her that she decided to apply.

And maybe, if Maj. Salvatore Albino, M.S.Ed.'76, of the Niagara University military science department, hadn't been so persistent, Vanessa never would have enrolled in the ROTC program. But she did, and that led to a 31-year career in the military.

These two decisions were life-changing ones for Vanessa. “The time I spent in the military made me the person that I am today,” she says. “Everything that I do ties back to my experience in the military.”

Commissioned shortly after graduating from Niagara with a degree in transportation, Vanessa worked in a number of jobs with TWA and Northwest Airlines while serving her country both on active duty and as a reservist. Vanessa participated in the Gulf War, Operation Joint Forge in Bosnia, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and held positions including detachment commander, personnel staff officer, brigade operations officer, and instructor for the NATO CIMIC Officers Course. She also served as the Cultural and Environmental Affairs Team chief in the Humanitarian Operations Center in Kuwait, a role in which she was instrumental in sponsoring the first People Actively Volunteering for their Environment (PAVE) Conference. This conference brought Iraqi University students and professors to Kuwait to interact and exchange ideas with their professional counterparts. Following that, she was chief of the Public Facilities Team, where she developed a concept for internship programs with civil corporations to provide soldiers with on-the-job training in the areas of public transportation, public communications and public utilities.

That military experience, as well as the master's degree in education that she received in 2011, prepared her well for her current role as a program manager for the Troops to Teachers (TTT) program. The federally funded TTT program provides transition assistance to eligible military personnel seeking second careers as K-12 teachers in public schools serving low-income families.

Part counselor, part coach, Vanessa works with veterans to help them determine if a career in teaching is for them, drawing upon her own experience as an assistant to the vice principal at a middle school in Coatesville, Pa. She also advises them on the critical subjects currently in demand, because having certification in one of these areas will make them more marketable.

“I know what it takes to be in a classroom,” she says, noting that she often advises those considering this career change to substitute teach to help them determine the grade level and subject they may want to teach, or to coach a sports team or volunteer in some other way with a school before deciding if teaching is the right career for them to pursue. “There's more to teaching than just standing and lecturing. We want veterans to go into the classroom, but only if that's what they truly feel they want to do.”

While she acknowledges that this career might not be for every veteran, she believes that veterans have a special skill set that makes them excellent teacher candidates.

“I think they make the best teachers because of the qualities they bring to the classroom,” she says. “They're used to diversity, they have leadership skills, they have great management skills, and they make great role models for today's youth.”

Vanessa also works with school districts throughout New York and Pennsylvania to match veterans with openings. This can be a challenging task, especially when the opening is in an unusual subject area.

"Languages is one of the critical subject areas,” Vanessa notes, “and I've had a school contact me looking for a Mandarin teacher.”

It can also be difficult convincing districts to hire one of the retrained soldiers, but Vanessa says that once they do, they typically want to hire more.

She references a former drill sergeant who was hired by a school in Philadelphia. Initially considered too strict, she soon earned a reputation as a fair teacher who truly cares about her students' success. Families now request that their children be placed in her class.

Vanessa notes that her program has had particular success with charter schools. One, in fact, has established a program with TTT called Project at Ease, which enables veterans to serve as engagement coaches while working toward their teacher certification. The engagement coaches, who are considered part of the staff, provide security while interacting with the students throughout the day and during after-school activities. They also serve as coaches for athletic events.

The married mother of two, who met her husband at the Transportation Officer Basic Course in Virginia, sees her work as giving back to the veterans who served this country and hopes to continue it long into the future.

“I enjoy what I'm doing,” she says. “I welcome the opportunity to provide this service to veterans. I feel I am also making a difference in the students' lives through the veterans that go into the classroom.”