A New Challenge
Serving His Country as a Civilian Engineer
Jay Cuttino joined the Navy right out of high school, figuring to honor the military-service tradition of his father’s family. But then the unexpected happened. He got sick just six months in, and because of the nature of his condition, he was unable to stay in the Navy and had to accept a medical discharge. Cuttino had not anticipated this sharp turn in his life, and he had no “Plan B.” What now?
Born in the Bronx, Cuttino had moved to South Carolina in elementary school. His father is a self-employed auto mechanic, and his mother’s ex-husband owns a construction business. “All my life, I’ve been around cars, construction, roofing, and the like, and so after the Navy, I went home and got a job in construction for about a year,” recalls Cuttino. “But I knew I didn’t want to stay in my mother’s house forever,” so he started thinking about a new direction: college.
He was accepted to the University of South Carolina (USC) in Aiken, a small satellite campus near his home. Cuttino was undecided about what field to pursue, but he didn’t have enough money to take his sweet time thinking about it. “I knew I was good at math, so I chose engineering,” Cuttino recalls. Reaching back again into his family history, Cuttino recalled that his grandfather helped build the old Charleston bridge, an amazing engineering feat at the time. “Those old guys could build anything, even if they weren’t recognized with formal certifications or degrees,” Cuttino says.
“I wasn’t a traditional student who went to college right out of high school, so I didn’t have any scholarships to make college affordable,” Cuttino recalls. He was determined to change that, and “I busted my butt my freshman year so I could earn a scholarship.” And that’s what he did, thus securing for himself the financial aid he needed to support his new path in life.
After two years at Aiken, Cuttino transferred to USC’s main campus in Columbia so he could take the upper-level engineering courses required for his B.S. degree. At that point, Cuttino had another decision to make: what branch of engineering in which to concentrate. “I chose electrical engineering because I didn’t know anything about it and I wanted to challenge myself,” he says.
Upon arriving at the Columbia campus, Cuttino joined the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., the first African-American national fraternal organization founded on the campus of Howard University in 1911. He became very active in his fraternity and eventually rose to chapter vice president and social chairman. During his junior year, a fraternity brother told him about a scholarship program for minority students with at least a 3.0 GPA in a science or technical discipline. Cuttino applied and was selected, opening the door to a job as an undergraduate research assistant during his two remaining school years and a summer internship that paid a stipend. He was presented the Zeta Zeta Chapter’s Omega Man of the Year award in 2007 for his superlative display of the fraternity’s cardinal principles of manhood, scholarship, perseverance, and uplift.
When Cuttino graduated in 2007 with an electrical engineering degree, he had five job interviews and five job offers -- a far cry from the uncertain future he had contemplated just a few years before. All along, Cuttino thought he wanted to work for a private engineering firm but after weighing the pros and cons, he chose the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Atlantic in Charleston, S.C. The appeal included the opportunity to travel around the world, to do important and exciting work in support of the U.S. military, and to be challenged early-on with responsibilities and move up the ladder quickly.
Just three years later, the reasons he chose to become a Navy civilian engineer have panned out. Cuttino is the chief engineer for the Local Area Network (LAN) Upgrade Project and travels to military facilities worldwide to keep their telecommunications networks on the leading edge of technology and to install state-of-the-art wireless networks. While working on the LAN Upgrade Project he provides the communications and computing infrastructure (C&CI) necessary to support information-technology systems deployed throughout the Military Health System (MHS), ensuring the security of MHS protected health information for three service branches: Navy, Army, and Air Force.
When he is back in Charleston, Cuttino is not one to sit on the couch. As a former high-school football player, he likes to work out. Along with some fraternity brothers, he has coached 7-year-olds in football. He also volunteers in classrooms near SPAWARSYSCEN Atlantic, telling kids to hold on to their dreams, work hard, develop their innate talents, and above all, don’t get discouraged if life takes an unexpected turn.
Navy photo by Joseph J. Bullinger.