Trojan veterans reflect on their journeys to USC

While some choose to participate in ROTC and join their respective branches after graduating, others chose USC after their years of service.

For Josue Rodriguez, attending USC after serving in the Marine Corps for four years fulfilled a lifelong ambition.

“Growing up in Southern California, this is honestly the only school I ever really wanted to go to,” Rodriguez said. “There’s also a lot of paths that USC organizes for veterans to help us.”

Rodriguez, a junior studying communications, said USC’s acceptance of online coursework credits, which he completed while stationed in North Carolina, simplified the admissions process. He also cited the Warrior-Scholar Project, a summer academic boot camp that prepares enlisted veterans for higher education, as crucial in easing the transition from active duty to civilian life.

“It was definitely a big decision last year, deciding whether I wanted to get out or stay in [the Marine Corps], and I would say coming to school was definitely the best option I could have chosen,” Rodriguez said. “Leaving one community but being able to jump straight into another one [at USC] was very helpful.”

According to the USC Veterans Resource Center, 1,200 student veterans are enrolled each semester at USC. The GI Bill, originally passed in 1944 and expanded upon in 2008, helps veterans pay for college, graduate school and other training programs. Most student veterans take advantage of the bill’s tuition assistance benefits.

Rodriguez works at USC’s Veterans Resource Center to help other students navigate scholarship opportunities and put together alumni events. He said serving in the military provided him with vital opportunities as an immigrant.

“I was naturalized and eventually became an American, and I’ve always just been very thankful for this country and all the people that have supported me and helped me get to where I am today, even though I’m a first gen college [student], first gen military,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like I’ve always been pushed to be at my best.”

Melissa Hooper served in the army for 13 years before attending USC as a student in the Master of Business for Veterans program. She said she discovered the program tabling at a Women Veterans Conference in Monterey, California.

“USC had never been something I’d ever considered like an option for me because it’s such an elite school,and I just never considered that to be something that I could even do,” Hooper said. “[The MBA] it’s just such a wonderful program that takes into account our military experience, our leadership skills and develops a program that we can continue to leverage that experience.”

While she sometimes feels out of place as often the oldest student in class, Hooper believes her military experience brings a new perspective to class discussions.

“I felt for sure a little bit fish out of water, but slowly I started realizing that my experiences did have a lot of relevance to different materials and topics in class. That’s how I was geared towards business,” Hooper said. “I did HR in the military, and I wanted to use that experience and that leadership and bring it into management and business.”

Even though the events are virtual, Hooper said connecting with fellow veterans through different programs on campus has kept her connected during the pandemic.

Natalie Chang, a veteran and second-year doctor of physical therapy student, said this sense of belonging after leaving the military is essential for veterans, who often struggle to transition back to civilian life. Chang initially found it challenging to find a community at USC, since most of her classes are on the Health Sciences Campus, which offers fewer resources  for veterans. Luckily,joining the USC Veterans Association helped fill that void.

Chang plans on spending time with her wife to celebrate Veteran’s Day and reflect on her time of service.

“I think that family support is one of the most precious things, especially when you’re serving in the military... and you’re not in control of a lot,” Chang said.

Garrett Wagner, a sophomore studying biochemistry, transferred to USC from community college after serving in the Navy for four years. He said that he enjoyed how similar the Trojan family is to the camaraderie of veterans. Wagner added that making connections with fellow student veterans has been his favorite part of attending USC.

“I feel like I’ve been connected into this wider community, in this wider multigenerational tapestry, so to speak, of other people... it’s like even though I may have just met them ten minutes ago, it’s like we’ve been friends our whole lives,” Wagner said.

Wagner, who comes from a family of veterans and USC alums, said the discipline he learned in the military helps with being diligent with his coursework.

“When something comes across my desk, I’m going to put all my effort into it and make sure it gets done, and if I’m not happy with it, I’m going to go back again and keep looking at it and keep revising it until it’s good,” Wagner said.