Commencement Stories: Navy Veteran Thomas Drake Aspires to Inspire

Photo of Thomas Drake, 2014 Excelsior College graduate.

Thomas Drake felt a degree would help him professionally and serve as an inspiration to those closest to him.

On July 11, Excelsior College will host its annual Commencement ceremony at the Empire State Plaza in downtown Albany, New YorkWith ‘Commencement Stories’, Excelsior Life explores the personal and educational journeys of a few of this year’s outstanding graduates.

While most of his classmates headed off to college at the end of the summer following high school, Thomas Drake had a different career in mind. While it may have stood apart from the traditional transition pathway for a Westchester County teen at the time, Drake knew he wasn’t ready to take on the challenge of higher education. So following in the footsteps of his father, who passed away while when Drake was just a child, he joined the US Navy.

“I wanted to join at 17, but my mother wouldn’t sign the waiver,” reflected Drake. “When I turned 18, I went ahead on my own.” Not only did the military give him an opportunity to serve his country, but it instilled in Drake the internal framework to succeed in academics on his return home.

“I took a police exam before I left and didn’t do well. After I left the Navy, I aced every exam,” said Drake.

Yet even after 17 years in law enforcement and becoming a police detective, Drake wanted more. He still thought about college and what a degree would mean to not only his professional development, but as a symbol of inspiration to those closest to him.

“I’m the only person in my family without a bachelor’s degree,” said Drake. “I knew a credential would help with a future promotion, but the real catalyst was my kids. I needed to be a role model to them. So when my wife, an elementary principal, became pregnant with our second (child), I felt it was the right time.”

Drake had heard of Excelsior (then Regents) College and its broad transfer policy while he was in the military and knew it would be the right choice for him to pursue a criminal justice degree. The ability to utilize military and law enforcement training that had been approved as college equivalent by the American Council on Education (ACE) and transfer in community college coursework pushed him closer to his goal than he could have imagined – and kept tuition costs down.

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While the online classes were an adjustment for him, Drake says his job actually helped him find balance.

“At the beginning I was working on a wiretap case and could do my coursework while on the wire…other times I could do work from my car, since I had Wi-Fi,” said Drake. While he slowed down after his son (now 4 years old) was born, he doubled his course load when his wife became pregnant with their daughter, knowing how close he was to finishing.

“My wife was my support system,” says Drake, who is also a captain for Riverview Manor Hose Company #3, a volunteer firehouse. “And my in-laws would help out by taking the kids so I could get work done. It was great to be able to turn to my family.”