Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

For some, this past Memorial Day was just as much about looking forward to the future as it was about remembering the nation’s fallen soldiers. Among those who will graduate from UC Santa Cruz this year, garbed in cap and gown will be a handful of the school’s few student veterans.

The path to graduation for these students has been anything but easy.

Luis Padilla, one of four student veterans graduating this year, described his transition from military life to academics as an abrupt one.

“As a reservist in the Marine Corps, I was sent to Iraq in the middle of the school year,” Padilla said. “I came back the following year on Jan. 4, and classes resumed on Jan. 5. It was a culture shock to just wake up and go to class thinking ‘what the hell do I do now?’ For me, that was the hardest part.”

Student veterans face a number of troubles unknown to the rest of the student body. The changes in their social environment, anxiety over receiving their Government Issue (GI) Bill benefits, or simply just trying to connect with their student peers — the uphill battle for a cap and gown is a little steeper for student veterans.

“I was a little hesitant about UCSC because of the anti-military stereotypes associated with the school,” said Erica Ronquillo, a transfer student and veteran. “I didn’t want to talk about my service with the Marine Corps. It can be hard figuring out how the other students feel about it.”

However, while every student veteran’s troubles are personal, they are also relatable. The network of support provided by UCSC’s Veterans Services program (VETS), such as peer-to-peer mentoring and counseling with fellow student veterans, is exactly what some need to earn their degrees.

“When you come here as a student veteran, you’re in need of information,” Padilla said. “You can take what your instructors and peers say with a grain of salt, but it’s easiest to take to heart what other advice student veterans have to say.”

Founded in 2008, the VETS program, under the Services for Transfer and Re-Entry Students program (STARS), has worked to provide support services, as well as educate veterans about their benefits under the GI Bill. While the number of enrolled student veterans is small in comparison to the greater UCSC student body, VETS Supervisor Dani Molina does everything he can to ensure that every student veteran’s graduation leads to a greater story of success.

“There’s about 80 or so student veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill here at UCSC,” Molina said. “Ever since VETS saw its first graduate in 2009, we’ve been gaining a lot of support for veterans returning to school.”

Support either in the form of grants from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or simple friendly gestures from their student peers, has been a huge relief for student veterans like Erica Ronquillo.

“I did not expect the amount of support that is here,” Ronquillo said. “UCSC turned out to be an excellent environment for student veterans. My perception of Santa Cruz was completely turned around. There’s a lot of good opportunities here for student veterans.”

Now, at the cusp of graduation, UCSC’s graduating veterans are looking forward to bringing their degrees and military experience to the workforce.

“This year, we are looking forward to seeing four more student veterans graduate,” VETS Supervisor Molina said. “Every student veteran who graduates from UCSC goes on to do something amazing with their life — working at the Pentagon, Ernst & Yung, investment companies, all of it.”

As the school year comes to a close, having exchanged their firearms for pens and their helmets for tassels, UCSC’s student veterans take pride in their accomplishments and are confident of their futures. Padilla, who will be graduating with a degree in history, was accepted into an internship in Washington D.C.

“My military focus and discipline has enabled me to work hard to get what I want,” Padilla said. “Now I want to do some government work, maybe international relations. I’d like to eventually work for the state department … [and] I would like to keep helping student veterans after I graduate.”