Javier Saldana, 29, found his calling in Columbus, Nebraska, where as a high school student he served on the Junior City Council. He took service to a whole new level as a U.S. Army enlistee. He did two war-time deployments and today serves fellow war veterans as acting director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
After graduating high school, he attended Southeast Community College. Then his Mexican immigrant parents informed him it was time he support himself. Laboring at Farmland Food in Crete convinced him there must be a better way.
“The Army was a fantastic way to get my schooling paid for,” Saldana said. “What better way of serving others than giving back to your country through military service, especially at the height of the Afghan war.”
The military became a second family. When his active duty ended, UNO became a second home.
“All the opportunities that have come from my connection to the institution (UNO) I can’t replicate anywhere else. Everything I do day in and day out is somehow connected to the community.”
His deep sense of community stems from his family being among the first Mexican migrants to settle in central Nebraska (Grand Island).
“It’s on record,” he said, “so we have a history.”
His family moved from Grand Island to Columbus when he was 4.
“Growing up in Columbus the Latino population was very small. We pretty much all knew each other. With the national trend of immigration from Mexico and Central America, Columbus became a place of destination and the Latino population grew. The Columbus public school system wasn’t really prepared for the newcomers’ children. Officials tried figuring out ways to best support these students.
“Fortunately, I was able to speak both languages fluently and proficiently. so I didn’t have as much of a struggle as other individuals did that only spoke Spanish. If rural communities are not taking the initiative to provide quality education, these commuities are going to fail and people are not going to have the quality of life and growth they want.”
His parents made certain he and his siblings visited family in Mexico every year.
“I really did appreciate that my parents wanted us to be connected to our Mexican roots.”
He still travels to Mexico at least once a year. Last year, he went five times. He values “retaining that cultural identity and connecting with our family down in Mexico.”
“Being Mexican-American is such a balance,” he noted. “In the Anglo world if you don’t speak English perfectly you’re looked down upon. In the Latino community if you don’t spoke Spanish perfectly you’re often criticized.
“Learning in depth both cultures is a big value of mine. Even being up to date on Mexican politics – who’s the president, how does their electoral system and form of government work, what historical Mexican figures have influenced that country and America.”
His interest in Mexico found him on a 2018 state trade mission to Mexico City led by Gov. Pete Rickets. The delegation advocated for Nebraska business and agriculture with major Mexican corporations and senior government officials.
“It was really interesting to meet their business leaders and get a different perspective on how truly crucial this bilateral relationship is,” Saldana said. “Some Nebraska farmers say 30 to 40 percent of their harvest ends up in the Mexican market. There are ample logistics to get that product to Mexico. The amount of trade that goes over the border equates to about a million dollars a minute or $650 billion a year.”
There he met the head of Union Pacific de Mexico as well as María Guadalupe Sánchez Salazar, consul of the Mexican Consulate in Omaha. As a Metro Young Latino Professionals Association board member, Saldana is exploring with the Consulate possible Mexican government funding for MYLPA’s scholarship program targeting DACA-Dreamer students.
“MYLPA’s vision is to amplify and empower Latinos in the community.” he said. “No one else is going to do that for our community, so we must advocate for ourselves to have our voices heard for Latino causes. In Omaha we’re progressing into professional jobs that hold power and have influence in the community. I appreciate seeing my colleagues and peers in those positions or working toward those positions.”
Saldana used the GI Bill to complete his college studies at UNO. At 22 he worked full-time in the Office of Military and Veteran Services and quickly rose through its ranks. He now leads the very office that’s “home base” for veterans like him.
“UNO has been recognized as a Top 10 military friendly institution in America. We have the right people and partners on board. We have buy-in from our administration. A whole student approach really sets our program apart. Helping students navigate the institution is a huge passion of mine. We do our best to make sure these students are set up for success.”
The office helps students access scholarships and housing and, as needed, professional counseling.
Assisting veterans is even better when the Nebraska Army National Guard soldier helps land current and ex-military members at UNO he’s served with.
“A big reason they come to UNO is that they know they’re going to be taken care of by someone they know personally. I bend over backwards for them.”
Saldana deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan.
“I was assigned to internment and resettlement operations with the 402nd Military Police Battalion out of Omaha. My second deployment was in 2015 as part of the protective services detail that escorted and protected high profile senior Department of Defense and State Department officials.
“It was a lot of responsibility. As a sergeant I was in charge of other soldiers. I made sure they were trained and developed so that they could make decisions on their own and keep themselves safe when I moved on.”
Two skills he learned in the Army – “resilience communication” – help him lead his UNO team of full-time staff, graduate assistants and work-study students.
Saldana is working on his master’s in Higher Education Administration at UNO.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.