Giving Veterans Career Advice, One Community At a Time

A group of veterans and local business leaders participate in the Veterans Career Mentoring Program launched by The Westchester Bank. Credit: Veterans Career Mentoring Program

Maria Trusa heads a medical practice in a suburb north of New York City. She started out as a medical assistant and went up the management ranks, expanding the business from seven to over forty physicians.

"It's the American dream - I'm very proud of my story," said the executive director of the Scarsdale Medical Group. But it was not always easy, she said. "I'm very in touch with the hard life. I had a difficult childhood when I was a kid," said Trusa, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was 15.

Successfully working through difficult times was one of the reasons why Trusa quickly signed up to participate in a veterans career mentoring program sponsored by one of her area's local banks, The Westchester Bank, which serves small- to medium-sized companies. "Veterans face many challenges, and we can help make a difference," said Trusa.

As communities around the country try to figure out ways to help integrate returning veterans, businesses don't have to be big or have large hiring capacities in order to help steer veterans toward post-military careers, explained bank president and CEO John Tolomer.

"Job fairs are sometimes well intended but they just say 'get on our website and apply online.' We have access to medium-sized companies we do business with, so we thought, how can we help vets make the transition?" Tolomer said.

So the bank invited local business owners, executives and human resource managers to participate in a networking event for veterans set up like a "speed dating" format. Young veterans met with managers from fields such as health care, property management or financial services. They got feedback on interview skills and resume building, got to learn about career areas they did not know, and in some cases found job opportunities at the participating businesses.

In conversations with vets who attended, Maria Trusa noted that many used abbreviations and military terms to explain their past experiences. "I told them they should not assume an interviewer understands this." She also advised them on how a job interview starts "the moment you walk in the door," and gave them tips on presentation, as well as information on fields they might not have considered, such as health care.

While many people are well-meaning about wanting to help vets, Luna said what is often missing is the 'how' to do it.

A.J. Luna, who directs the Office of Veterans Services at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, took a group of veterans to the event. Luna spent three years on active duty in the Army followed by four years in the New York National Guard before going into higher education.

Colleges with offices like his provide an important service, Luna explained, since they provide wraparound services to ensure veterans. "I'm like a benefits counselor for people transitioning from active duty," Luna said.

Veterans who are the first in their family to go to college need an even stronger support system to navigate higher education opportunities, said Luna, whose mother is from the Dominican Republic and whose father is Argentinian.

While many people are well-meaning about wanting to help vets, Luna said what is often missing is the 'how' to do it. The Westchester community networking event was effective because it introduced vets to fields they might not have considered, like working in a professional foundation, or real estate.

After the event, Trusa said she was steering some veterans to possible employment and was also giving guidance to a veteran's wife who had worked in the medical field in her native Peru.

Days after the mentoring program, Westchester Community Bank president John Tolomer said he received a thank you card from a vet "that would put a tear in your eye." He thought the networking event was a really effective way to help veterans, and and has spoken to other banks in the area interested in replicating the event.

"It's helping our fellow citizens, and we are definitely doing it again," said Tolomer.