Marvina Jones doesn’t shake hands.
It’s not a sign of disrespect. She’s a U.S. Air Force veteran and a public health student. She’ll take protecting herself and others first over social constraints.
“Sorry, but it’s cold season,” said Jones, declining a handshake on a crisp fall afternoon.
Jones, a first lieutenant with the Pittsburgh-based 911th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserves, dove into her first semester of graduate school this fall at West Virginia University. She’s enrolled in the master of public health program, with an emphasis on health policy, management and leadership.
It’s not her first foray into the health field. The 30-year-old Beckley, W.Va., native spent much of her seven years of active Air Force duty as a healthcare administrator and medical logistics officer. She earned her first master’s degree in health administration while in the military.
“After seven years in the Air Force, I didn’t want to throw that away,” Jones said about joining the Reserves. “I discovered I enjoyed being a health administrator, so the Reserves allows me the opportunity to still do that in a military setting but also explore my ‘what ifs’ on the civilian side.”
Those ‘what ifs’ sprout up along the way of earning her second master’s degree.
“My focus is on health policy,” she said. “I’m very interested in that and hearing whose voices are heard when policies are being made.”
She’s flexible about what comes next after graduation, an attitude that has served her well.
The idea of entering the military wasn’t a thought that floated through her head until her senior year as an undergrad at WVU.
Jones, who earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology in 2010, signed up for the Air Force the very same month she graduated.
“I always planned to go to dental school,” Jones said. “But for whatever reason, I was just burned out on school in my senior year. I thought about joining the National Guard but my mom said, ‘Why don’t you just go full-time and travel a bit?’ I wanted health benefits and something that would allow me to go back to school. The military was a good fit.
“I always heard that the smarter people go to the Air Force,” she added jokingly, “and that the Air Force wasn’t necessarily out on the front lines. I knew I didn’t want to be a Marine. I’m thankful for Marines and soldiers on the front lines, but that’s not what I was looking for.”
Jones joined the delayed entry program and eventually landed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She started out as an administrative assistant working as support staff for the commander. Later, she would become a healthcare administrator and educate patients and veterans on medical services and benefits.
Although she was never deployed for military action, she spent time at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea as a medical resource advisor.
That global experience heightened her appreciation of other cultures and also taught her lessons in humility and camaraderie.
“In South Korea, everybody lived in the dorm, whether you were the lowest-ranking airman or the highest colonel,” Jones said. “And most of us couldn’t drive over there, so after work everyone got together to stay socially fit.
“I met a lot of great people in the military from different backgrounds and different points of view. One thing it taught me was to have empathy because you never know what someone else is going through, where they’re coming or where they’re going.
“The second lesson from the military I learned was to work as a team. Whether you’re deployed in combat or at a peacetime location, you have to rely on each other. That was huge for us in South Korea.”
In between classes and Reserve duties – she has to spend one weekend a month training – she’s applying her health and administrative expertise at the Morgantown Vet Center as a work-study student. The center provides counseling for veterans. There she’s struck up relationships with a wide range of veterans from different eras, including Vietnam War veterans.
“There are different generations of military veterans for sure,” she said. “But you know what? As much as things change, they stay the same. We share a lot of the same gripes and experiences even though we’re generations apart.
“There’s always been red tape and the hurdle of navigating veterans’ benefits. Through my various roles, I want to make sure that all of us are getting what we’re entitled to as veterans.
“Both the military and WVU have taught me a lot. I’m thankful for those experiences. And who knows? I might go back to active duty someday. I’m not too old yet.”