Onondaga Community College annually recognizes distinguished graduates by naming them ”Alumni Faces” for their accomplishments and contributions to the community. The 2016 class will be honored during a ceremony October 26 at 5:30 p.m. in the Recital Hall which is located in the Academic II building. One of the graduates we will honor that night is Jeff Cleland.
The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 set Jeff Cleland on a path of service to his country. He was a freshman at West Genesee High School the day two jetliners were flown into the World Trade Center Towers. As news of what had happened spread throughout school Cleland knew immediately what he wanted to do. “I came home that afternoon and the first thing I told my parents was, ‘After graduation I’m going into the military.'”
In June 2005 Cleland received his high school diploma. Two weeks later he was on his way to boot camp for the United States Marine Corps. Cleland would become an infantry machine gunner, serving in Fallujah, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006 and 2007. He was wounded twice and medically retired in July 2008. “The military was a great experience for me because I matured a lot. I knew once I got out that higher education was the path for me.”
Cleland came to OCC in the fall of 2008 and started taking classes but realized it was too soon. “I wasn’t fully healed from my tour in Iraq. I also needed more time to transition from a regimented lifestyle where you always knew what you were going to do to one that was more care free.”
After taking time off Cleland returned and became an outstanding student. A professor in the English/Reading/Communication major, Joe Walsh played a significant role in his development. “Joe was exactly what I needed. He provided tough love and guidance. He also helped me find a career path I could get excited about.”
That career path was public service. Professor Walsh helped Cleland get an internship in the office of Congressman Richard Hanna. He enjoyed the experience and made contacts with a professor from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School for Public Citizenship. After earning his degree from OCC Cleland would transfer to SU and earn his bachelor’s degree.
Cleland remained in Syracuse and continued in public service. He volunteered for Congressman John Katko’s first campaign, then took a position at Clear Path for Veterans, an organization which serves as a hub of information, programs and resources for those who served their country. Following employment at Clear Path, Cleland was hired by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University as a Director of Innovation and Operations. While collaborating with the George W. Bush Presidential Center on a research project to help veterans find resources within their communities, the Center hired Cleland to be its Manager of Research and Policy. “I think back on it now and wonder how I got here. To be creating and establishing policy for fellow veterans at the George W. Bush Presidential Center is something I still can’t believe sometimes.”
Cleland is grateful for the support he’s received on his journey since returning home from military service. “My family, Professor Walsh and OCC were all critical components of my success. They provided me with the understanding and support I needed to acclimate myself back into society. As an Alumni Face honoree I hope to be an example to nontraditional students, especially veterans that it is never too late to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask or receive help in getting to where you want to go.”
In 2013 Cleland married his wife Kimberly, whom he had known since sixth grade. They have two children. The Cleland’s live in Dallas, Texas where the George W. Bush Presidential Center is located.