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Navy veteran uses expertise in field to obtain coveted engineering degree

September 21, 2020

Twenty-one years in the Navy made Victor Salinas a subject-matter expert on the high-stakes world of operating an aircraft carrier the length of three football fields, but only a college degree can earn him the engineering job he’s always coveted.

After retiring from the military in 2019 following 21 years of active duty, the Middletown, RI, resident is continuing his educational journey at the Community College of Rhode Island. Nearly two decades removed from the classroom, the 40-year-old San Antonio native is in his second year studying an Associate Degree in Engineering Systems Technology. His long-term plan is to transfer to a four-year college next fall to pursue his bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s.

“I came into this college experience treating it as another tour,” Salinas said, “with each tour being four years long.”

As an added bonus, the father of three is finishing his career at CCRI while his oldest daughter begins hers; his 17-year-old, Kaitlyn Salinas, is participating in the college’s Running Start program as a senior at Middletown High School.

As an Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) 1st Class for more than two decades – a career that spanned several deployments in addition to many technological advancements and historical, life-changing events – Salinas performed a number of duties while stationed on seven of the Unites States’ 11 active aircraft carriers focused on the everyday maintenance and operation of the catapults used to launch aircrafts.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Salinas spent 48 hours in New York amidst the chaos and tragedy landing and launching any and all aircrafts, a feat he ranks as his “biggest contribution” to the United States.

With the Navy looking to implement electromagnetic catapults on aircraft carriers to replace the current steam catapult system – a move Salinas says would cost less and streamline the launch system – Salinas began thinking of how he could use his extensive knowledge of maintaining, operating and troubleshooting catapults to become a key player in the industry post-active duty. He knew his on-the-job experience could only take him so far.

“Without that engineering degree, I cannot make the baseline changes and very high technical decisions I know I’m capable of,” he said. “Getting my degree is make-or-break for me.”

One of four boys in his family who served and retired from the Navy, Salinas decided during his final year of active duty that going back to school was the next logical step in order to achieve his goal of starting a career in engineering.

At that point, he had already been stationed in Newport for the better part of six years, bringing his three daughters – two of whom were born in Italy during a seven-year deployment overseas – back to Rhode Island with him following one last tour of duty on the USS Harry S. Truman in Virginia. While in Newport, he earned the Naval Station’s Senior Sailor of the Year award in 2015.

The toughest part about chasing a degree was starting all over again. Having not attended college since 2002 – the last of his two semesters at Southwest Texas Junior College – Salinas enrolled at CCRI and immediately began taking courses through the recently-launched Math Emporium, a huge lift academically considering he needed to develop a sophisticated understanding of the computer-aided design (CAD) system used in 3D engineering.

It was humbling, yet rewarding – an “amazing” experience, as Salinas recalls.

“I hadn’t taken any math in 18 years, so I had to take a step back to realize, ‘I’m not where I need to be,’” Salinas said. “The Emporium taught me so much. I learned a lot of new things, but I also refreshed a lot of things I learned when I was younger.

“A year later, I’m taking Calculus II. I’m picking things up and learning concepts I couldn’t comprehend at first.”

With most of his academic affairs in order, Salinas decided to get involved in campus life, specifically with fellow student veterans. One day between classes, he stepped into CCRI’s Veteran Services Office at the Knight Campus, where he met Veteran Coordinator Denny Cosmo, a CCRI alum and former U.S. Army Ranger.

“He gave me a full campus walkthrough, he told me what it was all about, and he just opened so many doors for me and showed me so many possibilities,” Salinas said of Cosmo. “He offered me an opportunity to be a part of the Veterans’ Office when he heard my story.”

As one of the older veterans on campus, Salinas used his experience both in combat and in the classroom to help fellow student veterans struggling with the concept of reacclimating to a civilian lifestyle – even something as simple as filling out financial aid forms or utilizing all of their available resources.

“Being in the military 21 years, that’s all I would do. I’d get the young kids in boot camp and motivate them to work,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how many people I would take under my wing to find out what motivated them.

“That’s exactly what I see here at CCRI. I love being that person for them. I take what I did in the military, as far as being able to lead young troops into battle, and do that same thing here in terms of, ‘Let’s open our minds and learn what we need to learn.’ That’s powerful for me. I’m able to give back to the people that come in.”

Salinas also participated in the Warrior-Scholar Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a two-week academic boot camp for student veterans that allowed him to “bump elbows” with engineering professors and prospective employers, many of whom recruit veterans to work for their companies.

“Unlimited resources and availability – just a great networking opportunity and a chance to get your foot in the door,” Salinas said. “It’s more than I anticipated when I filled out the application. It definitely went way beyond what I expected.”

With his oldest daughter joining him on his academic journey, in addition to a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old at home, Salinas continues to inspire, proving it’s never too late to make a better life for yourself. Soon, the veteran sailor and industry expert will earn his degree – perfect timing as the U.S. Navy ushers in a new era of technology.

“To get my degree, I would feel the same sense of accomplishment I got after every successful tour on active duty,” he said. “Expect now, I’m not just getting a medal or a ribbon – I’m getting a diploma I can use for a better future.” 

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