Combat to campus: Elisa East picked to lead SDSU’s MVP program

Military veteran and alumnus named director of the SDSU Military and Veterans Program

Tuesday, March 12, 2024
Elisa East, director of the SDSU Military and Veterans Program, photographed at San Diego State University.
Elisa East has been named director of the SDSU Military and Veterans Program.

Elisa East knows the sacrifice it takes to serve our country and also the challenges in transitioning back to civilian life — from multiple perspectives. 

Her experiences in a combat zone, as a military spouse and a military mother provide East a unique lens to serve San Diego State University’s military-affiliated students in her newest position as permanent director of the SDSU Military and Veterans Program. She had served in an interim capacity for about two years. 

An estimated 4,000 military-affiliated students — veterans, active duty, reservists and military dependents — are enrolled at SDSU. They make up about 12% of the university’s student population. Anything military commands attention in San Diego, home to 115,165 active duty service members, 230,507 veterans and 356,000 defense-related jobs.

“I’ve got to say, I am truly honored and excited about the opportunity to serve in this capacity,” East said.  “SDSU’s Military and Veterans Program is such an important program, both to our university and around the country, because a lot of what we do sets precedent nationwide. We have the largest military program in the CSU and possibly in the state of California. And with that comes great responsibility, as others are looking to us to see what we are doing. It’s a responsibility that I respect deeply.” 

East, who was raised in Central California, served in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2010, including a service tour in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in her final year of service. 

Upon her discharge, she enrolled in Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista and transferred to SDSU in 2013.  

“I chose SDSU for their centralized location and their reputation for their service to veterans because back then, I didn't know much about sense of belonging, only that I was seeking a community to belong to again,” East said. 

She graduated from SDSU with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2015 and received her master’s degree in education counseling in 2018. 

It was during graduate school when East started working at the veterans program in 2017 as a veteran advisor via the federal work-study program during graduate school. Upon earning her master’s degree, she served as the Troops to Engineers program coordinator from 2019 to 2021. She was elevated to the administrator of the Military and Veterans Program in May of 2021.

East was named interim director in February 2022 before receiving the permanent appointment in January 2024, following a nationwide search. 

The Military and Veterans Program supports active duty service members, veterans and their families in accessing and navigating higher education: negotiating the admissions process, understanding and obtaining government benefits and other financial aid, and providing personal and professional development opportunities for life after active duty and after graduation.

East said her background with the military as a veteran, military spouse and military parent positions her to make a difference in the lives of students in that population. 

East served most of her military career in detention operations and in Afghanistan, her unit was responsible for escorting convoys and customs efforts. She met her husband while in the military and married in 2005. 

"It’s also a full circle moment for me that I can share with our students, knowing that I worked here in graduate school and now I am here."

- Elisa East, director of the SDSU Military and Veterans Program

East raised her husband’s son as her own. He also served in the Army for a single term. 

“It provides a wide lens for me compared to someone who didn’t have the experience,” East said. “I know what it’s like to be a service member, to serve our nation; I know what it’s like to have a spouse who serves and understands that support element; and I know what it’s like to entrust the nation with your own child. Being able to have this experience, I understand our parents, who when they drop off their students, have an unspoken expectation that we are going to take care of them. 

“And for our veterans, I know what it’s like to transition out of the military and pursue your education. Understanding these things, I’m able to anticipate barriers so that they don’t have to encounter them,” East said

East said her biggest priorities as director will be to continue to fulfill the program’s mission to ensure the transition from military life to civilian life in an academic setting is seamless. One of the chief ways the program can accomplish this is by having commensurate staffing levels, she said. 

“Our center for a while has been understaffed to meet student demand,” East said. “It has posed a challenge, but we are going to be able to hire a few positions. I am looking forward to having a full staff so that we can continue to accomplish our mission.

“Every service member’s path has its own set of challenges that we have to prepare for so we can help them transition seamlessly into SDSU,” East said.

Another priority, she said, is to continue to provide students with career and professional development, critical for service members who are transitioning into civilian life. 

“This is a pressing need for me,” East said. “SDSU and Alumni have a large network and our Military and Veterans Program also has an extensive network. Leveraging our MVP network will enable our program to support our military-connected students in more transformational ways that will enhance the ROI of their SDSU degrees.

“Also, anyone graduating would love to know they have a job lined up, and providing our students with mentorship and a possible career path will do this,” East said. 

East said she is eager to continue the work she has been doing, and hopes to set an example for military and veterans students who can gain inspiration from her story.

“It’s also a full circle moment for me that I can share with our students, knowing that I worked here in graduate school and now I am here,” East said.  “That’s why it is so hard to articulate how special this is for me. All my experiences culminated in this moment, and I’m humbled to be here. 

“Now, it’s my job to help these students get to their goals: to graduate, get employed and carry on with their lives,” she said. 

Categorized As