I was going nowhere. At least, that is what some people thought.
You see, I started out in high school as an honors student but ended as a dropout. I had made a detour from the path of a traditional student. This deviation from the plan did not happen overnight; it was the result of a series of bad decisions on my part and the lack of a stable environment at home. This, of course, was not what I had envisioned for my life. It was, however, a much-needed reality check. I did not want to be another statistic. I did not want to be a failure. I knew I was capable of more. The Marine Corps would be my path to redemption.
The military was always one of my interests as a kid and it remained an option for me, considering my circumstances. If I were going to join the military, however, I did not want just any branch of service. I wanted the most challenging experience available, and for me, this was the Marines. Since I was a high school dropout, my recruiter instructed me to complete my GED and fifteen units of college courses in order to enlist. I did just that: I moved out of the environment I was in, I completed the tasks he had given me, and I was on my way to becoming a Marine.
I gained a lot from my time in the Marine Corps. Boot camp was my cocoon, so to speak; it was the beginning of my transformation as I went in as one person and came out a new and improved version – a Marine. My time in the infantry furthered my development. Undeniably, joining a profession where people want to kill you and your job is to kill them first is a transformative experience for a young man. The Marine Corps taught me valuable life lessons about discipline, courage, determination, and commitment. In order to succeed and, indeed, survive in the infantry, one must possess these qualities. After four years of service and two deployments, I have become the man I am today.
Towards the end of my service, I used these acquired attributes as I prepared for life as a civilian. My wife encouraged me to finish my education, so I began taking online courses. Surprisingly enough to me, I did very well. This gave me hope for life after the military. I decided I was going to get out and finish my education. Despite my recent success, I was still nervous about becoming a “classroom student” after such a long time away from the traditional school environment. In true Marine Corps spirit, however, I hit the ground running.
After having been stationed in California for four years, my wife and I decided to remain there after I was discharged from active duty. I had thirty-three college units under my belt at the time, so I was not considered a freshman applicant. I was also unfamiliar with the higher education process beyond the online courses I took while on active duty. I enrolled at the local community college intending to obtain the sixty units required to transfer to one of the state universities. I was hesitant at first, but soon found I had a lot of potential – potential I intended to realize.
They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Well, I became very lucky. While at community college, I used the skills I gained in the Marines to apply to my studies. I worked the graveyard shift full-time as a security guard, I got involved in various extracurricular activities, and I even served on my community college district’s Board of Trustees. One day I received a letter from Columbia University’s School of General Studies about their transfer program. I knew Columbia University was a big deal, but I did not think places like Columbia took people like me – a high school drop out at a community college. After some research, I realized many of the schools I thought were out of my league did, in fact, accept transfer students from community college. With this knowledge, I cast a wider net when applying to four-year universities.
I applied to UC San Diego, UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard. This was before I knew about services like Service to School – but what I did know was that veterans are always willing to help our fellow brothers and sisters. As I did research about these universities, I came across a veterans group at Stanford. I sent them an email asking for information about the university. What I got in return was a support network willing to give me some of their time to help me succeed. Two veterans in particular were willing to speak with me on the phone and even help review my various essays – turning my military experience into marketable language. I truly think their help was a big factor in my getting accepted to Stanford. I have tried to pay that forward ever since.
There was a strong military presence at Stanford. I had classes with both veterans and active duty members. I also had classes taught by military officers. My last year at Stanford, General Mattis actually became a fellow there. There was a vibrant ROTC program on campus as well. I became friends with some of the veterans at the law school, as that was my next goal. It was through these veterans I learned about Service to School. I volunteered my time as an Ambassador for a little while, and I’ve directed many veterans to the Service to School website. I continued to apply the work ethic I gained from the military and I did well at Stanford. As a result, I was able to get accepted to many great law schools. I have since joined Harvard Law School’s class of 2017.
There is a vibrant military community here at Harvard as well. We have many military themed events, social outings, and networking opportunities. It is a valuable support network to have. With one year left, I feel truly grateful to be where I am today. I am grateful for my time in the Marines, the brothers and sisters I have gained, and the help they have provided me with along this journey.
There was a time when a college degree was unfathomable for me – let alone degrees from Stanford and Harvard. Yet, here I am. What I hope that means, for any veterans and active duty members reading this, is that anything is possible. I wish there were more enlisted veterans in the ranks of Stanford and Harvard. Since those of us from the enlisted ranks do not have West Point or Annapolis in our backgrounds, we may think “elite” universities are out of our range. but I hope my experience illustrates they are not. In fact, I believe our life experiences make us desirable applicants who can enrich the student body and help us succeed in our own academic endeavors. I hope to see more veterans pursuing their education and not selling themselves short. If I had held onto the belief I did not “belong” at a great university – or any university for that matter – I would not have applied. I would not be where I am today, but, instead, I gave it a shot. I encourage you all to do the same, and I hope you make use of the natural support network we have in veterans on campus and groups like Service to School.