Crystal Shillaci stands under the Nittany Lion in the Student Community Center.

Schuylkill Speaks: A Conversation with Crystal Schillaci

Crystal Schillaci is an Air Force veteran and mother who likes to work with her hands. A fresh graduate of Penn State Schuylkill’s Business program, she hopes to make an impact – and her own custom furniture.

Crystal Schillaci is not a typical college student. She is a globe trotter – one who valiantly served her country. In 1997, Crystal graduated from high school and headed straight for basic training in the Air Force. While in the Air Force, Crystal worked as an Aircraft Armament Systems specialist, ensuring that explosive device could be accurately delivered from Air Force planes. Additionally, Crystal maintained the weapons systems that those explosive devices were loaded on to and delivered from.

After four deployments, Crystal returned to the U.S. after the Air Force offered her early retirement. A new mother, she accepted the opportunity. In 2014, she returned stateside and moved from Idaho to Pennsylvania. To maintain her health insurance, she and her family had to live within a certain radius of an Air Force base, and Pine Grove, a sleepy town in Schuylkill County, fit the bill.

Because Crystal could not continue to practice her Air Force occupation in the civilian sector, she chose to go back to college. She applied to the VA for the Vocational Rehabilitation Program and in spring 2017, she began classes at Penn State Schuylkill. Here for just two years, Crystal has earned her bachelor’s degree in Business and she’s ready to take on the next chapter of her life. Read what she had to say about where she’s been and where she’s going:

Where are you from?

I grew up in Kearny, NJ and attended grammar school at Franklin Elementary School. My dad got a promotion and we moved from NJ to PA and I attended Pleasant Valley High School in Brodheadsville. I graduated in 1997 and left for the Air Force in the beginning of 1998.

What was your early school career like?

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed high school but there were classes that I preferred like history, English and woodworking. I liked the classes that were hands-on instead of lecture. I played varsity softball sophomore through senior year; that was my passion.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you see yourself as a business person, or did you choose to be your own boss once you reached college?

I had always wanted to join the military, and I did, but I never really thought about having a career after the military. I never thought I would be perusing a business degree, but I do plan on owning my own business one day.

What made you want to earn a degree in business? And why the marketing and management instead of the accounting option?

I wanted to earn a degree in Business because I wanted to expand upon the skills I learned in the military. I chose management and marketing because I have some experience with program management and supervisory skills, but I am not too savvy with numbers so I stayed away from accounting. Besides, there are so many different avenues you can pursue with a management and marketing degree.

Why did you choose Penn State Schuylkill to earn your degree in business?

I chose Penn State because it is a prestigious school with a great reputation. I chose the Schuylkill campus because it was veteran friendly, it’s a beautiful campus, it is local and community-oriented and it came highly recommended. The first time I visited campus I felt comfortable; I like the smaller campus and smaller classes because they are more personable, and I like the interaction with the teachers and students. I feel that is an experience that I wouldn’t have if I had gone to the main campus or another big school. I am very happy with my choice and I had a great time here.

What people, places, and things at Schuylkill have made earning your Business degree an awesome experience?

Every teacher that I have come across has been wonderful! They are very personable and caring individuals and that has made me feel at home here at Penn State Schuylkill. They were always willing to help, if needed, and I loved how most of the teachers used their personal experiences in life to demonstrate their lessons.

Have you had a favorite class, or is there a specific focus within Business you really enjoy? 

To choose a favorite class is hard but I would say that I really enjoyed my history classes with Dr. Harold Aurand, my environmental science class with Dr. Lucas Redmond, and my Arthurian legend class with Dr. Nicole Andel. This may be a little cliché, but I really liked all my classes and all my teachers!

As an Air Force veteran, we’d like to thank you for your service. Welcome home! When you enlisted, did you ever think you’d head back to college?

Thank you! I never thought I would be attending Penn State University and I especially didn’t think I would be physically attending classes on campus. I had planned to take college courses online during my career in the Air Force, but I didn’t make it a priority because I had a career at the time and I wasn’t really looking toward a future career. Besides, I was having too much fun traveling and playing softball.

You mentioned before the interview that you were deployed to Iraq three times and Afghanistan once. That’s an astounding amount of time to spend overseas. How did you combat homesickness, and what did you miss the most?

I was pretty busy with working 12+ hours a day, but when I had time off I would go to the recreation center/tent and play cards or games, watch movies, or I would just relax in my bunk. The USO was great about bringing bands like Rascal Flatts overseas to tour the bases and I got to see so many artists this way. The one thing I missed the most was being able to pick up the phone and call anyone whenever I wanted. Our phone privileges were limited and monitored so that everyone got a chance to call home. On my first deployment we had to wait in line to call and we got one 15-minute phone call a week. On my last deployment, we had access to internet in the common areas and I was able to video chat/Skype occasionally. It wasn’t a very good picture or streaming, but it was better than nothing and it was something that I looked forward to once a week.

You’ve also mentioned applying to Boeing upon graduation. Has your time in the Air Force sparked a love for planes, or motivated you to work for an institutional goliath like Boeing?

I mentioned Boeing because of my experience in the military and my familiarity with the industry. I am not dead set on Boeing because it is located out in Philadelphia, but I am trying to find a good place to work where I can be happy and comfortable while being able to make a difference.

In 2014, you were offered the option to retire from the Air Force early, and you took the opportunity because you’d just had a child. Can you tell us about him?

Absolutely! He is rambunctious, fun-loving, energetic, and a real character. He loves tools and fixing things. He loves shapes, and I think he is going to be an engineer when he grows up. He amazes me every day and I am just trying to make a better life for him and set a good example; I have a lot of work to do, but being a mom is the best job and it is so rewarding.

How has being a mom fit into your education? Does the structure you picked up in the Air Force help you stay on track even when your son is going bonkers?

Being a mom and going to school is a little challenging, but I would definitely say that the structure and skills I picked up in the Air Force helped me manage it all. Time management, preparation, and patience are the three most important things I’ve carried over. It has been a challenge, but I have learned so much from school and from the experiences that come along with it. I have also had the support and help from my family and extended family.

What is your dream job?

My dream job would be making custom furniture and running my own business. I have always had a passion for woodworking, but haven’t made the jump to make it into a business. I hope that in the next year or two, I will have a side business in custom furniture.

Now that you’ve earned your degree, what advice do you have for current and future college students?

I would say to set goals and aspirations for yourselves and work hard at achieving them but have fun at the same time. It is important to work hard to reach your goals, but it is also important to unwind and decompress. If you miss a goal then re-set, adjust, and reattack. You are paying a lot of money to attend college and I suggest you utilize all the resources available to you like the ARC and library as well as the knowledge and experience of your professors and staff. You are living the dream!!! Not everyone is able to take advantage of the opportunities that you have so enjoy and good luck!!