Happier and Stronger Together
A veteran’s perspective on the challenges of going to college
My time in the United States Marine Corps was life changing. I experienced many difficult situations, such as patrolling in the dry scorching heat in Afghanistan and keeping our weapons free of rust in the pouring rain during jungle warfare trainings in Okinawa. Laughing at these challenges with my fellow Marines was our coping mechanism, and these unpleasant experiences became the bonds that connected us. In the Marine Corps, the success of a mission is not due to an individual but to a group of individuals who band together.
When I separated from the Marine Corps, I started studying electrical engineering at LaGuardia Community College, which was close to home. Coming from an environment where brawn solves all problems and where life is regimented, I found it difficult to adapt to academia and an unstructured routine. But I persevered. A lot of my brothers from my infantry unit were also starting college, and we commiserated about papers, tests, and professors. These conversations helped us maintain a shared experience, but they were long-distance friendships, and many of my friends dropped out. Some had to prioritize jobs and family responsibilities. Others could not keep up with their courses, and without academic support, they became isolated and stopped attending classes.
After finishing at LaGuardia, I wanted to continue my education to become a full-fledged engineer. Manhattan College (MC) checked the right boxes: it is regionally accredited, provides strong professional relationships, has small class sizes, and participates in the federal Yellow Ribbon program, which helps veterans pay for college. But I didn’t even consider the college’s military-friendly nature. When I first arrived, I just visited MC’s Veterans Success Center to get free coffee every day. It turned out, though, that there was a lot more to MC’s Veterans Success Programs, including its Veterans at Ease program, which connects new student veterans in a religious studies course required for all students and gives veterans the opportunity to attend a multiday retreat. On the retreat, which took place at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas, we were cut off from academic life. We did yoga, meditated, and learned stress-reduction techniques, which can be helpful for veterans dealing with trauma, combat stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I realized that I still had fellow brothers and sisters in arms, and that I was not alone in my educational journey.
The bachelor of science degree in computer engineering I received in May 2021 wasn’t just a recognition of my effort but also of those who supported me and struggled alongside me. During our student veteran post-commencement event, I recalled wilderness adventurer Christopher McCandless’s words that “happiness [is] only real when shared.” Our MC community of student veterans takes greater pride in each other’s accomplishments than in our individual successes. Equipped with a supportive community and tools for stress reduction, my fellow student veterans and I will continue to succeed academically and professionally. Down the line, I’m sure we’ll reminisce about the good and challenging times at MC, much like the way we share war stories with each other.
Image credit: Andrea Toral-Merchan