For the past seven years, Jess Peck ’19 had the words “supposed to” run through her mind constantly. She was “supposed to” graduate before younger siblings and family members. She was “supposed to” graduate college with her high-school class. She was “supposed to” play collegiate softball — she had been training for it her whole life. Growing up in small-town Altamont, in upstate New York, Peck was a stand-out athlete with a passion for helping animals. She was recruited by a small, private college in western New York to play softball, where she enrolled in pre-veterinary studies.
After just three weeks, Peck ended up dropping out and moving back home. Thrown for a giant loop by the difficult realization that this college just wasn’t the right fit — on top of the $40,000 annual tuition — the painful insight prompted a change that helped define Peck’s collegiate experience and her career. She just didn’t know it yet.
“I remember asking myself, ‘What the heck am I going to do with my life?’” she exclaims, “At 18 years old entering my freshman year of college, I should have been at the highest point in my life, but instead I felt as though I had let everyone down.”
Feeling defeated, she had to take a long look at where she saw her life going. It was time to forge a new path forward.
With unwavering support from family and friends, she decided to follow in her father’s and uncle’s footsteps as an aircraft loadmaster and enlisted in the Air National Guard. In order to join, she had to lose 50 pounds. It took over a year, but Peck channeled her inner athlete, found a training routine that worked, and made it happen.
Her first 30 months were consumed by training in Arkansas, as well as working part time as a guardsman back at her home base, the 109th Airlift Wing in Scotia, New York. While things were going well in her new career, she knew she wanted more. It was time to finish what she started in 2012. Peck decided to shift her focus, determined to earn a bachelor’s degree in business. The credential would help her advance in her career to become an officer in the Air Force and, in the long term, prepare her to open her very own small business, working with therapy horses and dogs to help support veterans. Not sure where to begin, she fortuitously learned about a college that could help her do just that.
“I remember talking to a bunch of aircraft loadmasters on base and heard about the great experiences that they had with online courses at SUNY Empire,” says Peck. “So a month after becoming an active Guard reserve loadmaster, I enrolled with a completely new mindset and with the ultimate goal of finishing what I started.”
One of the most compelling reasons Peck chose SUNY Empire was flexibility. The second was the ability to study completely online, and the third was receiving 68 prior-learning credits for loadmaster training.
“Even though my college life consisted of three seasons in Antarctica and three seasons in Greenland, I always felt connected,” says Peck. “Moodle was amazing and assignments were easy to submit. Discussions were always engaging and the professors were very flexible, especially my mentor, Valeri Chukhlomin.”
The Air Force was a career path Peck never thought she’d be on, and SUNY Empire State College was never in her original plans. But 14 countries later — ranging from supply missions to the South Pole to survival mission trips to Alaska — and the pride of knowing that she serves her country every single day, Peck can’t imagine doing anything else. There’s no more “supposed to.”
In June a year ago, Peck crossed the stage in Albany, a proud member of the SUNY Empire class of 2019.
“I graduated with a 95-year-old World War II veteran, a mother of five, and seven other active military members. At that exact moment that I was crossing the stage, as they announced, ‘Jess Peck, United States Air National Guard,’ I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be all along.”