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How the Marines and an Executive MPA Program Helped this Veteran Continue to Serve

Written by Stephen Eichinger on May 11, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Digital Education

The events of 9/11 set Jeff Cleland on a lifelong path of service. When the Twin Towers fell, one thing was certain—“I wanted to give back,” he said.

After graduating high school, Jeff did just that by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps. For three years, he fought as a machine gunner in Iraq until an injury cut his service short. He was just 21 when he had to return home.

Transitioning to life back on American soil wasn’t easy. At the time, the stock market was crashing, and without a college degree, Jeff didn’t see many career prospects. “People shook my hand and thanked me for my service,” he said. “But nobody wanted to hire me.”

A drive for service

To make ends meet, Jeff spent the next three years driving trucks for his family’s business. At the same time, he made progress with his education, earning his associate and bachelor’s degree in policy studies. And in 2014, he caught a break, landing a role as director of innovation and operations at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

Jeff was invigorated by lifelong learning and, while on campus, enrolled in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Master of Public Administration program. But before the program was over, life threw him another curveball: a job offer from the George W. Bush Institute in Texas.

Unable to pass up a job that so clearly intertwined his passion and experience, Jeff accepted the role as manager of the institute’s Military Service Initiative, where he would be responsible for helping veterans make successful transitions to civilian life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give back to those like him who had so proudly served the country. So Jeff put education on hold, packed his bags, and moved south.

From on-campus to online

Jeff was only a year into his new role when he received an exciting update from Syracuse: They were launching an online Executive Master of Public Administration program, ExecutiveMPA@Syracuse, and he could complete his degree as a member of their first cohort. “I really wanted to graduate from a renowned school like Syracuse’s Maxwell School,” said Jeff. “I knew it would help my long-term career.”

He eagerly enrolled, but not without a bit of skepticism. “It was my first time taking online classes, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Jeff.

His apprehension quickly dissipated. “There was a seamless transition from on-campus to online,” he said. “I got to see everyone’s faces through the virtual classroom and have open debates just like I had on campus. In truth, the program blew me away.”

As an added bonus, Jeff was able to study with professors and peers he’d never met—and may never have encountered—on campus. “One of my classes was taught by a professor who lives in Kansas and normally doesn’t teach at Syracuse,” said Jeff. “Through the online program, you get to interact with people you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Jeff was particularly impressed by his peers’ professional backgrounds. “Some had 20-plus years of nonprofit experience or had spent 25 years on Wall Street,” he said. “My professors understood the caliber of talent in the classroom and mixed readings with real-world knowledge—peeling back the onion to see what really takes place in the private sector and nonprofit world.”

Every day is day one

Since graduating from the ExecutiveMPA@Syracuse program, Jeff has not stopped learning or seeking new challenges. Today, he lives in the greater Washington, D.C. area and works for Amazon.

In his current role, Jeff manages the company’s public policy for the northeastern United States. He is responsible for overseeing policies that range from tax to transportation. “I love getting to touch on so many different issues,” he said. “The company motto is Every day is day one. And it’s true. I never get bored here.”

For Jeff, an especially meaningful responsibility has been serving as Amazon’s subject matter expert in transportation for each of the fifty states. “Everything in this country moves by truck, rail, or air,” he said. “Transportation keeps commerce strong, which keeps society strong. The policies surrounding transportation are fascinating. How do you raise funds to build roads? How do you make sure you’re sourcing products in the right country? There are a million issues transportation touches since it’s the backbone of our economy.”

Thanks to his experiences in the military and in the ExecutiveMPA@Syracuse program, Jeff feels prepared to address them all.

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