Steve Jones' first shot at college ended in failure.
The second time, 20 years later, he found success.
For his accomplishments both in and out of school, Jones, an HCC honors student, psychology major, married father of three, and U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq, will be honored at the State House in Boston May 8 with a "29 Who Shine" award. The annual awards from the Dept. of Higher Education recognize one student from each of the 29 public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.
"After returning to college after so many years away I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know how much I loved to learn," Jones said. "I am truly honored to represent Holyoke Community College as one of the '29 Who Shine.'"
Jones, 40, will be accompanied to the State House by his staff mentor Cindy MacDonald, a learning specialist with the HCC Office of Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services. Jones first met MacDonald when she was working at HCC as the Veterans Services coordinator and she became his academic advisor.
"Cindy has been my most encouraging and enthusiastic supporter," Jones said. "She was the first person I met at HCC. She said, 'You veterans, you succeed. You tend to do very well. You've performed under pressure and stress.' It really lifted me up, given that I hadn't been to school in 20 years."
Jones grew up in Easthampton and entered HCC at the age of 18, right after graduating from Smith Vocational High School in Northampton. Working nights as a dishwasher, he would leave his job at 2 a.m., then get up a few hours later for 8 o'clock classes.
"I came in with really no direction," said Jones. "I just didn't have a plan. College wasn't something I should have been doing at that time."
So, Jones dropped out, got married, and found a job at C&S Wholesale Grocers in Hatfield, where he still works today as a receiving manager - full time - supervising 125 employees on the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, Sunday through Thursday.
A couple of years ago, at the suggestion of his supervisors, Jones decided to go back to college. In 2012, he returned to HCC through the Fresh Start program, which, once in a lifetime, allows students who have been gone at least three years to wipe out a poor academic record.
"I didn't want to study business, because numbers aren't that important to me," says Jones. "What I really like about the work I do is interacting with the people and the employees and helping them not just with work but with the struggles they have in life."
Jones will graduate from HCC this year with high honors and an associate degree in psychology.
He'll continue to study psychology in the Elms College weekend bachelor's degree program at HCC. After that, he plans to pursue a master's degree in art therapy and a doctorate in clinical psychology at Springfield College.
Ultimately, he wants to work with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, a career path shaped by the eight years Jones spent in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
"I have a lot of friends who suffer from PTSD, and I don't have any answers for that right now," said Jones. "So I need schooling to be able to help them and people like them."
Jones had always wanted to join the military and finally did at 28, signing up for the reserves so he would be stationed close to his home and family in Russell.
He appeared for his physical exam on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked the United States. The next day, Jones was sworn in.
In 2004, his unit deployed to Iraq, where Jones served in airborne control and command in support of troop operations, performing resupply missions as well as medical and casualty evacuations, rising to the rank of sergeant.
For the past 11 years, Jones and his wife, Brenda, have hosted a special Christmas feast for veterans, many who are homeless. Once the event had outgrown their dining room, they built a three-car garage that they transform each holiday season into a banquet hall. Last Christmas, they welcomed 75 veterans into their home.
Jones notes that the dinner is not just about feeding hungry people.
"This is for the camaraderie," he said. "We're veterans. This is what we do. We're there for each other."
He calls it a blessing.
"I've had grown men I've never met before, hugging me, crying, telling me it's the best Christmas they've ever had," says Jones. "That's really what it's about, making other people feel good."
Photos: (Left) Steve Jones, right, talks to one of his former professors, art teacher Ray Larrow. (Right) Steve Jones, in the third floor hallway of the Fine & Performing Arts building.