Veteran student, business owner, and single mother of four: these are only some labels to describe the hardworking and humble Ashley Tufuga, who far surpasses any one title.
This semester marks Tufuga's first at Kean as she pursues a bachelor's of science in marketing after transferring from Coastline Community College. This degree is not the first one Tufuga is working to earn as she has already earned a diverse set of associate degrees over her lifetime. It is, however, Tufuga's first time pursuing a bachelor's degree on campus.
New Jersey born and Scotch Plains raised, Tufuga chose Kean University to stay close to home with her four children as she pursues her degree within a classroom setting. The transition from online classes to an in-classroom setting has been an interesting experience for Tufuga, who has found it humorous to observe the differences and similarities between herself and her younger classmates.
"It's definitely been interesting to see the generations behind me go through classes with me," said Tufuga.
With her varied experience, Tufuga has been able to act as a mentor for some students, sharing life advice that she wished she had known in her 20's. This is especially pertinent in her Communication 1402: Critical Citizenship class where she makes sure to curate her speeches to be informative and offer life lessons to the class.
"It feels good being able to help out someone where I didn't have help," said Tufuga.
Her interesting speeches have made her a key speaker in the class, even inspiring her instructor to encourage her to give a TED Talk one day, although Tufuga has not yet followed through with the idea.
Part of her wealth of knowledge for her presentations comes from her diverse background and experiences. Tufuga has had her hand in multiple industries and interests including nuclear power, human resource management, general business, the U.S. Navy and cosmetology.
Tufuga expressed that her time in the U.S. Navy was some of the most fun of her life. She worked as a nuclear machinist mate, learning how to build and operate nuclear power plants. At the time, she worked in a field where the male to female ratio was typically about 33 to 1. Tufuga has found that that experience of working alongside mostly men has given her a better understanding of the differences between how men operate and how women operate. As a result, Tufuga feels that it has better equipped her to work alongside men since being in the Navy. She remarked that this particular line of work had been her favorite.
After leaving the U.S. Navy, Tufuga proceeded to try her hand in different fields, eventually falling in love with the marketing field. Recently, Tufuga has even begun her own freelance business contracting company, Legacy Business Solutions, LLC. This entrepreneurial venture is part of why Tufuga had decided to earn a bachelor's in science in marketing as to be best equipped to manage her company.
Owning a freelance company has allowed Tufuga the necessary flexibility she needs to be able to balance being both a student and a single mother. As CEO of the company, Tufuga enjoys the ability to make her own work hours and decide what projects to take on.
"Having a full time job was definitely 10 times more stressful, believe it or not," said Tufuga. "Some people are like, 'Oh, I like the stability,' but when you have children, when you have school and then you have work demands, [it's difficult.]"
Owning her business has allowed Tufuga to be able to cater her time around her four children, two of which have special needs. Being available for her children is incredibly important to Tufuga, who makes sure to shift her school schedule with this consideration in mind.
Tufuga's children have been especially supportive of their mother going back to school to earn her degree. Tufuga shared that her home's slogan is "Nerd Life: think different, stay weird." Tufuga has impressed in her children the importance of constantly being curious and learning, and has enjoyed having her children take interest in the process of earning a college education.
The Office of Veteran Student Services (OVSS) has also helped Tufuga to navigate her time at Kean, offering her resources and a community to lean on. A common obstacle veteran students face is waiting for documentation to be processed. The office has been especially helpful in this by advocating for and supporting veteran students through these frustrating circumstances.
One of the most significant ways the office has helped veteran students is by inviting a representative from Veteran Affairs (VA) to come to Kean every week. Tufuga notes that this has been especially helpful as veteran students are largely dependent on VAs processing their documentation to receive their necessary payments, benefits and more. Tufuga notes that having a VA representative available to sit down and discuss questions and concerns in person has been especially helpful for veteran students by shortening what otherwise would have been a longer and complicated communication process. The support offered to veteran students through OVSS is a feature largely unique to Kean University, earning them first rank in Military Friendly's 2019-2020 Top 10 Military Friendly University in the Nation lineup.
"To have someone on campus on a regular basis to help [veteran students] anytime we need is A1 service. A lot of places don't offer a lot for vets," said Tufuga. "I like that we're heard. So, if we ask for something or we say we need something, Kean and [Vito Zajda, director and VA certifying official of OVSS] do their best to accommodate us."
Tufuga believes her ability to balance all her responsibilities is in huge part because of the effort she puts in to advocate for her needs.
"I'm a firm believer in 'The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil,'" said Tufuga. "If you don't ask, [people are] not going to give it to you."
This was a fun saying Tufuga's doctor had shared with her that has now become an important slogan for her life and that she hopes to impart to the whole Kean student body.
"Don't get discouraged. My advice would be: if you know what you need to do, or know what you want to do, or know what you need to ask, don't be discouraged by one person giving you an answer you don't like, go somewhere else. It's okay to get a second opinion or to ask 'Can I get a second chance?' It's okay to advocate for yourself," said Tufuga.
Tufuga continues to use her unique background and experience as a dedicated parent, professional and veteran to make the most of every day she spends at Kean University.