Jeremy Villanueva

Alumni | Bakersfield

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"Because of the opportunities the CSU afforded me, I’ve accomplished far more than I ever thought I could."

Jeremy Villanueva believed he was destined for blue-collar work, but the support he received at CSU Bakersfield transformed him. Today, the former Marine is fighting for veterans’ rights as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

In 2008, Jeremy Villanueva, a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, was working as a journeyman plumber in his hometown of Bakersfield. One day, he found himself helping to replace some underground pipes on the campus of California State University, Bakersfield.  

“I remember seeing all those college kids walking around,” says Villanueva. “And I couldn’t help thinking, Look at these guys. They’re going into an air-conditioned classroom, they’ve probably got a test to do or they’re going to be sitting through a lecture, talking about things I’ve only read about in books. That’s amazing to me.

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A mere four years later, things looked very different for the father of two: He was a junior at CSU Bakersfield and an intern at the Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. He’d give tours of the Capitol and attend briefings in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where he’d hear then-President Obama on the other side of the door.

And, in an experience Villanueva still describes as “surreal,” he was invited to a meeting in the Pentagon office of then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “There were all these generals talking to me and the other veterans as though we were their equals,” Villanueva says. “Unbelievably, the people in charge of our nation’s defense were asking for my opinion on policy issues.”

Beyond Blue Collar

It was desperation that led Villanueva to apply for admission to CSUB.

After the economic downturn, he’d lost his job as a plumber and couldn’t find work. The only thing he thought he could do was go to school, but, he says, “I was 27 years old and always thought about college as a fantasy land for other people’s kids, not for me. I thought I’d have a blue-collar job for the rest of my life.” 

To Villanueva’s surprise, he was admitted into CSU Bakersfield, with the help of the university’s Veterans Center. Then doubt set in. But his professors knew what the new student was capable of. When he told Rebecca Hewett, who taught his freshman English class, “I’m a Marine, I’m a plumber; writing papers is definitely not my strong suit,” she refused to believe him. “You speak really well,” she told him. “You like telling stories. Just write the way you speak.”

“That resonated so deeply,” Villanueva recalls. “I cranked out the papers and really impressed myself. I got my first-ever 4.0 that quarter and I made the Dean’s List.”

In his sophomore year, Villanueva was able to find a job working as a maintenance man to help support his family. He’d sometimes show up to class muddy and exhausted. “One day, I’d been pressure-washing a house before a political science class and I began to second-guess staying in college,” he says.

Wendy Avila, a former lecturer at CSUB, asked him to stay after class. “We’d just had a midterm and I thought I was in trouble,” he says. Instead, Avila suggested he apply for the highly competitive Panetta Institute internship. 

Villanueva was amazed when he got it and he continues to marvel at what he’s accomplished in the five years since he graduated from CSUB, with a degree in political science and government. 

On commencement day, his cap was decorated with only a picture of his father, who passed away when Villanueva was just 11. “I took that same picture with me through boot camp. It went with me on my first deployment all over the world. And it went with me to Iraq, which is where a lot of the frayed edges come from,” he explains. 

“The reason he was on my mortarboard was because I wouldn’t have crossed that stage if it wasn’t for the example he set.”

“When it comes to education, legitimate, honest-to-God miracles can happen.” — Jeremy Villanueva

Fighting for Veterans

After graduation, Villanueva started work at the national nonprofit group Disabled American Veterans (DAV), but it soon became more of a calling than a job. He helped disabled veterans navigate the challenging labyrinth of filing disability claims, something he’d needed assistance with himself after leaving military service with knee and back injuries in 2004.

Today, after steady promotions, Villanueva, 36, is the associate legislative director at DAV, where he advocates for legislation that supports disabled veterans and their families. Among the laws he’s proudest to have played a role in helping to pass is the Mission Act. Enacted in June 2018, it greatly improved veterans’ access to health care and also expanded caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans. 

Villanueva has even been called upon to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health to discuss pending legislation. “I never could have imagined I’d be testifying in front of Congress, appearing on C-SPAN or attending meetings in the White House,” he says. “Because of the opportunities CSUB afforded me, I’ve accomplished far more than I ever thought I could.”

“I want you to remember the tough Christmases we had,” he’ll tell his kids, now 13 and 16, every year around holiday time.  

“When it comes to education, legitimate, honest-to-God miracles can happen.” 

Founded in 1997 by Leon and Sylvia Panetta, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy serves the entire California State University system, providing a variety of opportunities for students to study in government, politics and public policy and offers Congressional internships in Washington, D.C.

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