College Matters | Serving a greater purpose than oneself

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, November 9, 2023 - 1:30pm

This Saturday is Veterans Day. It is a day we honor and show our respect to the many individuals who have served their country in our armed forces. For many families, it is a day of sharing memories and strong emotions.

Veterans Day can also be a day that we celebrate and show our appreciation for those among us who give their time to helping or protecting others. It can be a day of celebrating service. This both recognizes the highest ideal of those engaged in military service and provides a way we can honor their service and sacrifice in our daily lives.

Each of us has many stories of service in our families, though sometimes it takes some research to find them. Nearly every household includes a parent, sibling, grandparent, or great-grandparent who has served in the military. Their stories can inspire and guide us. Personally, I start with stories of my father, then my uncle, then myself. I also have newer stories about my daughter and her effort to serve. For families, there are many others.

Many years ago, another campus was conducting a project honoring servicemembers and their families. Students and their faculty selected a few individuals who were resting in a state’s national cemetery. The tombstone told only part of the story: their branch, rank, and names. As the students and faculty would research further they learned fuller stories. The small group would reach out to the families to learn more about the person. This often revealed the backstory of why they served, who was inspired by them, who their family was today and what they were doing. It even revealed their interests or heartaches. The Veterans Legacy Project was conducted in collaboration with the Black Hills National Cemetery (

Each veteran has a rich story of their upbringing, interests, reasons for serving, and much more. One story, if not action, that binds every veteran is, “they were each willing to sign on the bottom line for a greater purpose than themselves.”

During my time in Humboldt County, I’ve been able to hear the stories of many local veterans, including current students and alumni of Cal Poly Humboldt. I’ve also been privileged to learn about the military service of my friend and colleague Dr. Keith Flamer, who is president at College of the Redwoods.

For me, as a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, and later the Army National Guard, the most inspiring aspect of serving in the military was seeing this service in action. At its most simple, it was the sense of purpose and desire to help others.

As we honor veterans on Veterans Day, take a moment to also actively look out for the examples of service all around you, and try to appreciate it. Be energized by it. Let it inspire you to do something more or something different in service to others.

Many people have done amazing things with their lives. They have dedicated themselves to different causes, had success in their careers, and raised families. First responders are incredible people and have my utmost respect. Teachers, and the blind faith one has in the power of education and the greater good. Clergy, and the love and support one can provide to another human. A dear friend who can be beside you when you are most in need. And so many others.

There are some who may still wonder if they made a mistake not serving in the military, and wonder how their life might have been different. Some have a belief about what military service is, when in fact it might be something completely different. Many serve in technical fields, in support roles, in construction, medical, and so many other fields.

I am a proud veteran. I am proud to have served my country and encourage others to consider doing the same. Embrace the desire to have a true sense of purpose.

The North Coast is an amazing place with special people. In our daily lives, we are surrounded by individuals who give of themselves to serve others.

Be kind.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.