Helping Others Succeed

Matt Thewes uses what he knows to help servicemembers earn their degrees

Matt Thewes of Hope Mills, North Carolina, is a veteran of the Air Force, a former Excelsior College military education representative who helped many military veterans enroll in college, and founder of the All American Veterans Center at Fayetteville Technical Community College. But despite all this, he doesn’t want to be known as the “veteran guy.” He says he wants to be known for helping people. Thanks to a bachelor’s from Excelsior and an extensive and varied career, he has proven he is a helper of people.

One Saturday afternoon, a few years after he finished high school, Thewes received a phone call from a U.S. Army sergeant recruiter. Thewes had filled out a contact card while he was in high school, and the sergeant was following up to see how he was doing. Thewes, at the time, was actually not doing well. He had flunked out of the university and community college he attended, and he was working part-time washing cars. “Well,” Thewes recalls the recruiter saying, “it sounds like you want to have lunch today.”

Lunch and a conversation later, Thewes thought he was on his way to becoming an Army vehicle mechanic. Fast-forward to swearing-in day, and Thewes noticed the Air Force also had mechanics. Thewes’ Army recruiter and an Air Force recruiter encouraged him to go home and rethink his decision of joining the Army. “I called the Army recruiter back and told them, ‘I appreciate it. But no, thanks. I think I want to be an aircraft mechanic.’ So, I called the Air Force recruiter; they somehow transferred the majority of my paperwork, my scores were high enough, I didn’t have to retest…and that’s how it started,” says Thewes.

Thewes joined the U.S. Air Force in 1991 as an aircraft mechanic, which he remained for about seven years, then he cross-trained to become a C-130E loadmaster, which meant he loaded and unloaded planes as well as flew in them. Soon, he began having back issues and was stationed in Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. There he became an instructor and ground safety representative and later went into meteorology. “Every time I moved from one base to the other, I ended up going to the local school, whether it was a community college or university, and taking a couple classes, but I didn’t really have a long-term goal to complete a bachelor’s degree,” Thewes explains. When he landed at his next assignment, he spoke to an advisor who recommended Excelsior. “They evaluated my transcripts and said all I needed was a couple upper-level classes, and then I could get my degree,” recalls Thewes. He went on to complete his remaining requirements at nearby Methodist University, submitted his transcript to Excelsior, and earned a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts in February 2003. He later earned a master’s in education from Liberty University.

Thewes thought a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts was the best degree to pursue because it would provide him with a pathway into education and counseling. He wanted to be some sort of educator because he didn’t have the best role models growing up. In 2012, Thewes retired from the U.S. Air Force after 21 years and got his chance to educate others. He saw an ad in the paper for an Excelsior education representative at the Education Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and decided to apply. He got the job, and for 18 months, he evaluated transcripts and helped servicemembers enroll in Excelsior degree programs.

“I worked hard to make sure that [servicemembers] were getting the most out of their benefits,” says Thewes. “Let me be the role model for them…I think that was the part where the passion came from.”

Thewes would take extra care to advocate for the men and women who came to him, mostly because when he was young, he didn’t have anyone who advocated for him. He felt responsible to give back to these young men and women. “They all had different stories,” he says. “But the issue was they needed a degree that they could get in a certain amount of time—and they didn’t think it could happen. I said ‘Well, let me look at your transcripts and let’s see if we can make it happen.’ And so that’s what the mission was: to find degrees.” After 18 months, he had helped to enroll hundreds of people. Sometimes, he says, he wouldn’t be able to take a lunch because the line to his office would be out the door!

But Thewes was aching for more. He says his wife teases him that he is always fearful of missing out on the next big thing and so needs to keep looking for something bigger and better. He applied to be the director of the veterans center of Fayetteville Technical Community College, where he eventually opened the All American Veterans Center. But that still wasn’t enough. He became senior assistant director of transfer admissions for Fayetteville State University. “And so, after that year in admissions, I was really never home. I was always on the road recruiting,” says Thewes. He then made the move to become the director of the Veterans Upward Bound program at Central Carolina Community College. Finally, Thewes became a counselor working at the Education Center at Pope Air Force Base, which is where he is today.

Helping others has always been Thewes’ number one goal. And showing his children what a good role model looks like is a plus, too. Thewes volunteers in the community organizing car shows and working with veterans service organizations. “I basically take what I didn’t know and didn’t do as a teenager and build it, water it, and continue to grow it, and this is kind of where we’re at now.”

It’s rewarding, too, when he runs into a former servicemember he helped enroll in a degree program. “We’ll just talk and, and they’ll tell me, ‘Thanks for giving me the information. I really appreciate it. I was confused, or I didn’t know what to do. You really are a strong advocate for us.’”