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Formerly homeless student-veteran finds calling in fire science

Despite facing trying circumstances, Justin Archer graduated with his A.S. degree in Fire Science Technology from Seminole State College in December 2013.

Justin Archer, an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who earned the rank of sergeant and served tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, found himself homeless in 2011.

Today, Archer is a graduate of Seminole State College of Florida’s Associate in Science (A.S.) in Fire Science Technology program.

In April, he passed the Florida fire inspector certification exam, and now he is preparing for a career as a municipal fire safety inspector in Orange County. Archer, 31, of Winter Springs, also is continuing his education at Seminole State, pursuing an Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree.

Archer attributes much of his success to his “support team” at Seminole State, his professors and those at the College’s Veterans Affairs Office, who helped him locate benefits available to veterans.

“I went through some tough times during my college career, but there were a lot of people who were willing to help me out,” Archer says. He worked closely with Jose Toro, a VA specialist at Seminole State, to ensure he was on the right track with any benefits.

Archer served as an auto mechanic in the Marines.

“The military was definitely a major growth experience,” he says. “I wouldn’t consider myself the poster marine, but there were a lot of lessons I learned about leadership and professionalism.”

When he left the Marine Corps in 2008, he began exploring options for a more steady life.

“Coming out of the military, I didn’t want to continue working as a mechanic, but I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do,” he says. “I started looking through classes at Seminole State, and I thought fire science sounded cool.”

Archer enrolled at Seminole State in 2011.

“After taking a few courses, I found that it provided an opportunity to become a man of service, and it was a field I thought I could do well in,” he says.

Archer found local housing, taking advantage of the GI Bill, which includes basic allowance for housing. Still, technicalities prevented him from receiving full benefits, and he found himself unable to keep up with the cost of living.

“After a while, I was forced out,” he says. “I sent my wife to stay in Chicago with her family, and I had to move into a shelter – Rescue Outreach Mission in Sanford. I had to stay there for several months while working to get back on my feet, all while taking fire science classes at Seminole State.”

Homeless and struggling financially, he tried his best to make ends meet and keep his grades up. And for a while, he was able to keep up. He lived in a homeless shelter and volunteered at Goldsboro Museum, where he began developing a support network. This included Anne White, who periodically volunteered at Rescue Outreach Mission. She was able to help Archer get in touch with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to see what they could do to help.

“After I explained my situation, they set me up in a program called Transition in Place,” he says. “It was a great program – it provided an apartment, and helped me furnish it and pay for rent and utilities while allowing me to focus on my school work.”

When he uncharacteristically missed an exam in one of his fire science classes, his professors suspected something was wrong.

“Justin was very determined in his schoolwork, and for the most part, he never let any external problems affect the quality of his work,” says Jim Jollie, program director for the Fire Science Program. “He never complained about his circumstances, but we knew something was off when we noticed a very brief gap in his engagement in the classroom.”

His professors reached out to him and helped him find the social and academic support he needed to get caught up in his classes. And after graduation in December 2013, he sought Jollie’s help in preparing for his fire inspector certification exam.

Jollie says Archer’s modesty and perseverance, characteristic of a veteran, were integral in overcoming difficult circumstances to find his calling and excel in it.

Archer has a slightly different take on his success.

“Keeping a positive mental attitude is a lot more helpful than it sounds,” he says. “Having a goal to work toward is really important, even though at times it might not seem like it.”

Seminole State College’s Veterans Affairs Offices, located on all four campuses, are dedicated to serving as a one-stop source for veterans to secure, interpret and exercise their VA education benefits. For more information, visit the Veterans Affairs website.

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