Last year, Tomas Colon ’15 joined the ranks of Eastern Connecticut State University’s growing number of nontraditional alumni. The 12-year military veteran graduated with a degree in sociology, and in doing so, achieved a lifelong dream, fulfilled a promise to his mother and immediately put his degree to use. The first-generation college graduate is now a fatherhood support provider for the Great Beginnings program at Madonna Place, a nonprofit organization based out of Norwich.
“I’m a big momma’s boy,” said Colon, 40, who grew up without a father figure. “She did everything she could to raise us. She made me promise that after the military I would go back and get my education.”
After several years of employment at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, working various armed security jobs, Colon enrolled at Three Rivers Community College and earned an associate’s degree in human services. “I wanted my mother to know that her sacrifices were not in vain.”
In 2013, he transferred to Eastern and declared a major in sociology. “It was an opportunity to look at human services from a broader perspective.”
While many nontraditional students take classes at Eastern’s Groton site, Colon decided to commute to the main campus in Willimantic. “It was an experience, being older in class; I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I was able to share a lot of my own experience and knowledge, and found myself providing a bit of guidance, which was awesome.”
With a challenging sociology curriculum, the Eastern faculty helped Colon achieve his goals. “Not only were they accessible, they were understanding of the challenges of being a nontraditional student,” said Colon, reflecting on his full-time work obligations and responsibilities as a father of four.
One professor turned out to be particularly helpful. In an anthropology course with Professor Ricardo Perez, Colon was assigned to perform academic-based community service, or “service learning.”
“Service learning is what actually inspired me to apply for the position at Madonna Place,” said Colon. “That’s the wonderful thing about Eastern in general. Students are encouraged to get out into the community and get a pulse of what’s going on; it’s a wonderful experience for undergraduates.”
In his role as a fatherhood support provider, Colon works with fathers of at-risk families, helping them understand the details of childhood development. “We try to give them the tools to better understand their children in an effort to minimize child abuse and neglect,” he said. “It’s humbling to know you can be a part of something so incredible.”
But Colon isn’t stopping. He is now enrolled in a master’s program at Liberty University, where he is studying human services counseling. Still he thinks back to the day his dream came true: “The second I received my Eastern diploma in the mail — a lot of laughter, joy and tears from my wife and kids — we raced over to mom’s. It was a beautiful experience to finally have that degree in my hands.”