During Jen Patronas’ lengthy career in the U.S. Air Force, she spent many days managing pediatric clinics to ensure the children of military members received the best care possible. She is now impacting young people in her home state of Alaska in an exciting role as CEO of a youth-serving organization thanks in part to the Saint Leo University Doctor of Business Administration program.
The 40-year-old hails from Grand Bay, AL but now calls Eagle River, AK home. She and her husband, Heath, have three sons – 17-year-old Garrett, 14-year-old Grant, and eight-year-old Grady.
“I would not recommend naming your kids by the same first initial,” Patronas says with a laugh.
The family has two dogs, a Chiweenie named Totoro (a Japanese anime name for ‘mystical creature’) and an Alaskan Village mix named Tremor from the Tremors film series.
Opting for a Career in the U.S. Air Force
Patronas served in the Air Force for two decades. She explains what led her toward military service.
“When I graduated high school at 17, I knew there were so few opportunities for me in my hometown,” she recounts. “My family couldn’t afford for me to go to college, so out of the blue, I decided to join the Air Force so I could get my education. There was only one recruiter’s office close to where I lived, and I drove myself there.”
As they say, the rest is history. Patronas enlisted in 1999. Looking back, it was worth the experience.
“The military is where I grew up and found my sense of family,” she shares. “I knew I didn’t belong in small-town Alabama. Being able to travel the world to see so many different areas and cultures gave me a much bigger sense of global knowledge. This was how I found Alaska. The first place I felt at home was the day I landed in Anchorage in January of 2010 in the middle of a snowstorm. There is some sense of peace and solace about this state.”
She mostly served as a medic and later became a technical training master instructor for the Community College of the Air Force and worked as a military training instructor (a.k.a. ‘drill sergeant’) for basic military training.
“I really learned how to be a leader. The military requires you to take leadership classes as you progress through the ranks. At times, I didn’t really understand what these leadership classes were all about and why they were so important. In hindsight, I realize how valuable these skills were for me.”
Capping a 20-year career, she retired in 2019 as a master sergeant.
Balancing Military Service and Higher Education
While enlisted, Patronas completed her undergraduate studies through Trident University International where she earned a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in healthcare administration in 2008. She explains what inspired her to go on for her graduate studies and her decision to choose Saint Leo University’s MBA in healthcare management program.
“I spoke to my mentor who was a Saint Leo University student at the time. She told me the one thing I could never lose is my education. She encouraged me to go to school for as long as I could while still on active duty because tuition is fully covered.”
She is so grateful for everything her online MBA program offered her.
“It was one of the best experiences I had while enlisted because it gave me something else to focus on that was positive,” she says. “It also helped me build upon the knowledge I was gaining through my military service.”
While it was certainly a hectic schedule for her at the time, she reflects on the benefits her graduate studies had on both she and her children.
“I was working on active duty and just had a newborn. Being able to access my courses anywhere was key for me. I spent many nights with my baby in a sling on my chest writing papers. I would go to work, handle my mom duties when I got home, and then work on my classes from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Now I look back on these times as fond memories because it was just the two of us together. I would read papers aloud so my baby would hear my voice, even if he didn’t understand a word I was saying. Plus, my older son saw I was going to school like him, so that was a neat connection we had as well.”
She graduated with her MBA in 2013.
Pursuing the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) at Saint Leo
Several years after wrapping up her MBA, Patronas came to realize that she was not completely finished with her formal education.
“I worked as a medic in the Air Force and had already moved up to be the healthcare manager of a pediatric clinic. I wanted to expand my knowledge, elevate my education, and was looking for another positive outlet after leaving the military. For me, school is something I can focus on where I’m not thinking about stressors.”
She started researching the options Saint Leo University has and thought the Doctor of Business Administration degree program was right up her alley.
“My heart was set on Saint Leo because my experience with them was so positive in my MBA program,” she says.
Outstanding Faculty in the Doctor of Business Administration Program
She enrolled in the Doctor of Business Administration degree program in January of 2021. Dr. Thomas Kemp, an adjunct business instructor at Saint Leo, has offered her tremendous support in the doctoral program.
“Dr. Kemp has been the most wonderful and patient professor I can recall throughout all of my education,” she says. “He is the definition of a professor who is so passionate about what he does and makes students passionate about learning. He is so dedicated to Saint Leo University and the subjects he teaches.”
She took his Qualitative Research class and found the coursework to be very practical. Dr. Dale Mancini, the director of the DBA program, has been a tremendous help to her as well.
“He has encouraged me throughout the program,” she says. “I struggled to find a topic for my dissertation, and he worked with me in helping me nail this down.”
The working title of her dissertation is “Boots to Boardroom: A Qualitative Study of Female Veterans and Their Transition from Military Service to the Civilian Workforce.”
In general, she can’t say enough about the willingness of all of her professors to ensure she gets the most out of her degree program.
“My Saint Leo professors have understood when I’m having a hard time or not understanding. They have given me some flexibility in turning in certain assignments and provide me one-on-one support when needed.”
Relatable Core Values
She notes that the six Saint Leo University core values are “very in line” with those in the Air Force. This is a big reason she believes the university is a perfect fit for her.
“Excellence and integrity stand out to me the most,” she says. “I find the Saint Leo professors and students exemplify both excellence and integrity in everything they do. Every professor I’ve had has talked about these core values. I can identify with them and they are dear to my heart.”
Her Post-Military Career as an Air Force Vet
In 2019 after her retirement from the military, she became the senior director of healthcare services for the Anchorage School District, a system ranked among the top 100 largest districts in the United States.
“When COVID-19 started, I spent a lot of time working with community partners and politicians to help get the district safely through the pandemic.”
Since a young age, her life goal was to become the CEO of an organization. Within the 1st year of starting the Doctor of Business Administration program, she landed a job with this title working for the Boys & Girls Clubs - Alaska.
“I was recruited, so the job kind of just found me,” she says. “Being a doctoral student absolutely helped in that process.”
She joined the organization in January of 2022. Her role is to manage 23 clubs throughout Alaska, 15 of which are not connected to any major roads due to the unique landscape of the state.
“Working directly with youth has been so rewarding,” she says.
Her passion for helping young people stems from her Air Force experience.
“Every time I went on an overseas assignment, I always found myself in the realm of pediatrics. No matter where they are from, one commonality in every child I met is that they wanted to be seen, heard, and validated.”
And what is her overall mission she hopes to achieve each and every day?
“I want to make a difference in the lives of as many youth as I can. I want to give them a safe place to go, especially in Alaska where we don’t have a lot of resources in our smaller villages.”
Making Meaningful Connections through Huts for Vets
According to Patronas, there are numerous challenges female veterans face when reassimilating back into civilian life.
“When you first join the military as a woman, you have to prove you belong. This is no different once you become a veteran because you’re still proving that you did serve, that it was not your husband or significant other, and that you can be a veteran without being physically disabled. It is almost always assumed that it is the male who is the vet. Sometimes people tell me I’m too pretty, thin, or tall to have served in the military, things that just don’t make any sense. These comments made me feel like I had no identity when I got out.”
She was fortunate to discover Huts for Vets, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado that provides unique wilderness therapy and fellowship opportunities for veterans.
“Mentally, I was not in a good place when I retired,” she confides. “I was looking to connect with other female veterans. I listened to a podcast with Paul Andersen who was speaking about the Huts for Vets organization.”
She recalls how she felt attending her first event with the organization.
“I applied and got a call to come to one of their events. I honestly was very intimidated going on my first trip as an Air Force vet.”
Once she got over the nerves, she knew she had made the right decision.
“Taking this trip helped me connect with nature and other women with shared experiences,” she says. “The experience helped me heal from trauma I had not yet digested from the military. Having these shared experiences was exactly what I needed.”
The group hiked around the mountainous Aspen, CO area. They also spent three days at Margy’s Hut where they read philosophical works and talked about how they interpreted these readings. The lack of cell phone service allowed the members to completely disconnect from the outside world for a brief time.
In 2021, she returned for an event to serve as a peer mentor.
“I learned as much from them as they learned from me,” she says. “I highly recommend this organization to all vets.”
Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Jen Patronas and is used with permission.
Learn More about Huts for Vets
Check out this video featuring Patronas on the positive impact Huts for Vets makes on veterans like herself.