Class of 2023: Jumping out of planes teaches Army veteran to conquer the fear of being a nontraditional student
The first time Jeff Parks was supposed to jump out of an airplane as an Army paratrooper, he was scared stiff. Everyone was. “Anybody who tells you they weren’t terrified is lying,” he said.
Just three months earlier, 20-year-old Parks was a brand-new infantryman trying to make it through boot camp. Now he was inside an airplane high above Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and as the doors opened and let in a blast of frigid air, realization dawned that all that stood between him and a 1,500-foot free fall was the parachute strapped to his back. “This could kill me,” he thought grimly.
He jumped anyway.
“To quote 'Dune,' ‘fear is the mind-killer,’ Parks said. “You can't let it control you. If you're willing to move past that primal urge to be afraid, you can achieve anything you want to.”
By the time he left the military in 2019, he'd logged 25 jumps out of planes and helicopters, an experience that never exactly became easy. "No jump is routine," Parks said. "You have to be very on your game."
But coming to Virginia Tech as a transfer student in 2020 was its own kind of terrifying, especially because Parks was not your average undergraduate by a long shot.
He was a combat veteran. He was a decade older than some of his classmates. He was married.
Yet Parks was determined not to allow fear or trauma stop him from embracing the full Virginia Tech experience.
“Some of our student vets tend to shut down,” said Juan Cordero, a former Marine and a military benefits support specialist in the Office of Veteran Services. “They get a degree from Tech, but they don't actually become Hokies.
“Jeff set out to become a Hokie,” Cordero said. “He wanted everything Virginia Tech had to offer, and he wasn't going to let himself get in his own way.”
A Hokie at last
As a kid, Parks dreamed of going to Virginia Tech the way he dreamed of joining the military. His dad was an Army officer, and amid their many moves the family spent a few years in Virginia during the Michael Vick era. Parks cheered on the Hokies and told himself that one day he’d go to school there.
First, though, he joined the Army, in January 2014. Besides teaching him how to jump out of planes, the military introduced him to soldiers from all over the country. Especially eye-opening was his deployment to Afghanistan, where he saw Afghans who struggled to make a living in a difficult land and who lacked the educational opportunities he’d taken for granted. “I had been an 18-year-old kid who didn’t care about school,” said Parks. “Going back to school was really important to me after that.”
Once he returned to Fort Bragg, he and his then-fiancée Sara Guasch road-tripped to Blacksburg and explored Virginia Tech. Snapping his first selfie in front of Burruss, “that’s when I knew, ‘OK, I’m going to come here,’” Parks said.
A year after they married in 2018, Parks completed his Army service and joined his wife in Georgia as she finished medical school at Emory University. All the stars finally aligned when she matched for medical residency at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke and Parks was admitted to Virginia Tech. He was going to be a Hokie at last.
In the Department of Political Science, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Parks was sometimes a decade or more older than the other students in courses like Strategies of Modern Warfare. When he brought up his experiences in Afghanistan during an Intelligence and National Security class, students gaped. “They were like, ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Parks said.
But the Army had taught him to do hard things. As an infantryman leading a fire team of three or four soldiers, he’d learned self-discipline, self-reliance, attention to detail, and a superpowered work ethic. Now he applied those same skills to managing a full load of classes and supporting his wife through her medical training.
Like many former members of the military, Parks struggled with mental health after his service. Loud noises flooded his body with adrenaline. Crowds turned him hypervigilant. In Afghanistan, those behaviors were a survival mechanism, but in civilian life they were exhausting.
Yet Parks didn’t want to miss out on experiences like going to a Hokie football game. So he muscled through and attended with friends from Veterans@VT, a social group for student veterans that became an important source of support for Parks. Whatever fears he'd had to push past, jumping to “Enter Sandman” in a packed stadium was worth it. “For me, it was kind of the pinnacle of all the hard work getting there and being able to say, ‘I'm a Hokie.’ This is my alma mater, and I'm super proud of it.”
A man who will fight
Gen. James Gavin, third commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, famously said, “Show me a man who will jump out of an airplane, and I’ll show you a man who will fight." Modify that last part to “I’ll show you a man who will achieve great things in school and beyond,” and you have the perfect motto for Parks.
After graduating in May, Parks will follow his wife as she starts a fellowship at Wake Forest in hematology oncology. While he’s happily prioritized her training, for himself he’s considering a graduate program in national security or politics, or perhaps a job as a political analyst. He was also intrigued by a guest speaker from the Department of State speak in his State and Local Government class. “I keep people's business cards,” he said.
He knows it won’t be easy. Both the Army and Virginia Tech taught him that worthwhile things are supposed to be difficult. “But if you can conquer that initial fear,” he said, “the world’s your oyster. You just gotta shuck it.”
Parks will be among the Class of 2023 student veterans honored at the Veterans' Achievement Ceremony at 3 p.m. May 8 at the Peggy Lee Hahn Pavilion. Graduating seniors will be presented with a military stole they will then wear with their graduation regalia as commencement.