A military salute to mentors

Kesterke pleasantly surprised by student veteran's appreciation coin gesture
February 18th, 2021

Dr. Matthew Kesterke recently received the Aggie veteran appreciation coin from his former doctoral student.

When Texas A&M University student veterans graduate, they receive an appreciation coin to share with their most inspirational faculty or staff mentor. One of those coins recently made its way to Texas A&M College of Dentistry.

As Dr. Matthew Kesterke, instructional assistant professor in biomedical sciences, opened up the envelope from the College Station-based Texas A&M University Veteran Resource & Support Center, he could only guess which student thought enough of him to honor him with the coin. The letter explained that, under normal circumstances, the coin would be presented by the student in person, but COVID-19 restrictions had altered that protocol. The letter didn’t include the student’s name.

“It caught me off guard,” Kesterke says. “I was flattered and honored by it.”

Kesterke often introduces fellow students who have served in the military so they have others who understand their journey.

He racked his brain as to which student might have made such a grand gesture. Because he was unaware of this four-year-old recognition program, he Googled for more information.

Even though he has never served in the military, Kesterke says he’s mentored many student veterans and shared resources with them since he joined the school in 2009. He would often send them to his Ph.D. student, Dr. Bill Stenberg, who served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.

“We always have a couple of veteran students every year,” Kesterke says. “As somebody who was a nontraditional student going into graduate school, I understand it’s kind of tricky balancing work and life.”

As it turns out, the coin sender wasn’t a dental student graduate. Instead, it was Stenberg, Kesterke’s Ph.D. student in biomedical sciences who graduated in 2020.

“Dr. Kesterke was there from the beginning,” Stenberg says. “I talked to him every day, from my first day at Texas A&M until my last. He builds his relationships on trust combined with open and honest discussion. I know his dental students appreciate this, but it’s also a critical asset for a member of a Ph.D. graduate committee.”

Presenting a coin to a notable person is a U.S. military tradition, and being a recipient is considered a great honor, Stenberg says.

“At the end of a campaign or deployment or sea voyage, the commanding officer will sometimes present a coin in appreciation to a single crew member who selflessly went way above and beyond their duty, and in doing so, made everyone’s life a little better,” he says.

Stenberg has since moved on to Oregon, but he has kept his College of Dentistry connection as an adjunct assistant professor in biomedical sciences. Stenberg lectures Texas A&M dental students virtually, works with the college’s Sleep Research Program and is a clinical periodontist for the U.S. Coast Guard in Oregon, this time as a civilian. He also continues research with Dr. Hu Zhao, assistant professor in comprehensive dentistry.

Stenberg says Kesterke’s guidance was instrumental as he navigated his doctoral degree.

“He was able to relate to the many difficulties faced by a new student,” he says. “His door was always open, and he patiently listened to whatever the dilemma of the day happened to be.”

Kesterke remembers the very first student veteran who showed up in his office to ask for advice on how best to transition into the dental school environment since he was older and had a wife and kid at home.

“The student lamented, ‘I can’t go out for margaritas and then a movie and then study. I have to head straight home,’” Kesterke says. “He was struggling with that, and I remember putting him in contact with Dr. Stenberg about how to approach that school/life balance.”

Kesterke also referred students who were interested in military dentistry to Stenberg. Over the years, he’s introduced a handful of new dental students to fellow student veterans as well.

“I had a very fulfilling career in the military, and I tried to share that with them,” Stenberg says. “I know that some of them went on to serve.”

Stenberg’s 26-year military career began in the U.S. Navy while he attended dental school at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco. An interservice transfer to the U.S. Coast Guard took him all over the U.S. as he worked primarily as a clinical periodontist. He also worked during transits in the Bering Sea, the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan.

Kesterke says he hopes to launch a student organization to help student veterans, although that will have to wait until post-pandemic.

“I thought it would be interesting to hear from some of our student veterans and faculty veterans on some of the hurdles and resources they’ve had, the pros and cons of the service, and coming in like that,” he says. “They’re a pretty strong network in and of themselves. There’s a camaraderie there and a fellowship among them that seems pretty strong, too.”

Kesterke is the first College of Dentistry faculty member to receive the veteran appreciation coin. This unexpected accolade has given him pause. When it comes to students, he has rarely thought about his natural ability to inspire others. Until now.

“We don’t know if what we say resonates with others and whether it really connects with others, sometimes until much later,” he says.

Dr. Bill Stenberg thought of Kesterke when it came time to select a mentor to honor with the Aggie appreciation coin.

— Kathleen Green Pothier