Jessica Saulnier's life story has been entwined with the military, and she plans to keep it that way.
The theme began at birth, in 1984, on Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi - or even before, with her grandfather, who was captured and imprisoned in Poland during World War II.
When she graduates this month from Rutgers-Camden, Saulnier will head to law school to pursue her dream of becoming a military lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps.
"If they let me into the military, they're going to have to kick me out when I'm 70. I'm going to be that person going, 'Nooo!' " Saulnier, 30, said last week.
As a military lawyer, Saulnier hopes to follow in the footsteps of another Rutgers-Camden alumna: Lt. Gen. Flora Darpino, the Army's judge advocate general. A 1986 graduate of the law school, Darpino spoke on campus last spring, when she said something Saulnier adopted as her mantra: "Do not fear a challenge; embrace it!"
Saulnier met Darpino after her talk, which cemented the dream of joining the JAG Corps.
"She is so down-to-earth and just a very, very nice lady, and she holds herself well, but she's not imposing. She was someone I could look to and say, 'I could be . . . in her shoes one day, that could be me,' " Saulnier said.
She has been accepted to the Rutgers-Camden law school, so she'll return in the fall to the campus where she says she was first able to focus on her dreams.
The daughter of a retired Air Force captain, Saulnier calls herself a military brat who moved several times as a child before her parents settled her and her two sisters in New England, where her father became a civilian Air Force employee. Saulnier describes the military family lifestyle as tough, but said she learned early on to adapt to new situations as they arose.
(Plus, she said, trick-or-treating on base always netted the best candy.)
After graduating, she married her high school boyfriend, and he entered the military. They moved to New Jersey, where they lived on what is now Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. She discovered Burlington County College offered courses at the base, and she signed up.
Several months before she received her associate's degree, Saulnier and her husband separated, and she moved in with her best friend. She fell into a slump for the next three years, she said, sleepwalking through work and school.
"The last year, I kind of woke up," she said, and decided she needed a change.
Having decided to complete a bachelor's degree, Saulnier began looking at schools. She was too old for her initial plan: entering an ROTC program and then the military.
"I started looking at other avenues and seeing where my interests were lying, and then I was like, 'I wonder if I could do law,' " Saulnier said.
Local military recruiters introduced her to a late-entry program for certain professions, including lawyers, doctors, and dentists. A Rutgers undergraduate adviser suggested that for pre-law, she major in English, political science, or philosophy.
"It really was one of those things where everything just started falling into place after that," Saulnier said. "I said, 'All right, let's try political science.' "
"And from there it's been just an awesome ride," she said.
Saulnier's professors said she showed a strong work ethic, ambition, and leadership skills, all of which they see helping her in a legal career.
"She really wants to know what the truth is. And if the truth is not evident, she wants to know how to find it," said Wojtek M. Wolfe, who has had Saulnier in four political science classes. "And that's where I think she'll make a great attorney. Very detail-oriented, her academic mind-set and how she processes the information is ideal for the legal field."
In class, her professors said, Saulnier sets such high standards that she can be too hard on herself. She gets frustrated with mediocrity, they said, because she wants everything to be perfect.
For an American political thought course, for example, Saulnier sought out her teacher's intensive feedback on the draft of a paper.
"She literally sat next to me at the desk, and we went through word by word, clarifying what she was trying to say until it was the best that she was capable of. And she was very persistent at making sure what she produced was the best that she was capable of," said Tim Knievel, who taught Saulnier in four courses. "That sets her apart from some of her peers, just this persistence in pursuit of excellence."
Richard Harris, chair of the political science department, returned from a year in England to find the political science student organization "was kind of moribund." Saulnier topped the list of students recommended as new leaders.
At the same time, Saulnier found herself lingering after class to continue discussions with other students, which left her wanting a more formal forum. Wolfe agreed to serve as faculty adviser for the Political Science Society, and Saulnier organized students to revive the group. She was elected as this year's club president.
"She's got a wonderful way of engaging people and sharing credit and making people feel good about their contributions," Harris said. "So, organizationally, she was top-notch, and in terms of her energy and her creativity, she was as well."
Harris, who never taught Saulnier in the classroom, also invited her to lead a small group of students to provide input as the department hired new professors.
The qualities that caught her professor's attention should serve Saulnier well in law school, they said.
For now, Saulnier keeps two sets of goals: short-term, such as earning her law degree, and long-term, such as becoming a military lawyer.
She was reminded of that dream again in the fall when she met Darpino at another campus talk.
"She just inspired me with her story," Saulnier said, summarizing Darpino's message: "You can have a career, and a family, and be happy, and you just have to go after it."