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Soldier, student, standout: A vet seeks a school and finds a future

Jeremy Garcia, Information Technology

After a 12-hour workday at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan, Jeremy Garcia sat on his twin-size mattress, which he had placed on top of a cot for comfort, and began his most important personal battle.

It was spring 2014.

For the past four years of his life back in the U.S., Garcia was living paycheck to paycheck. He had worked evenings and weekends and had taken on two to three jobs at a time to help his fiancée pay their bills.

But working 50 hours or more a week wasn’t enough. He could barely save any money for a rainy day. If he didn’t do something about it, he would have to face the same challenges when he returned to the U.S.

He was tired of that. He wanted more. They needed more.

That’s why he was thousands of miles away from home and from his fiancée, sitting on his bed and studying. Garcia was on a mission, marching toward his second life dream, which he had put on hold since 2009.

He had already fulfilled his first dream of becoming a frontline soldier, like his stepfather and his older brother.

 

I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to put the uniform on.

— Jeremy Garcia

“I wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I wanted to put the uniform on.”

Besides fighting for his country, he had always dreamed of getting a college degree. In order to accomplish that first life goal, however, he had to put the second one on hold.

As a National Guard reservist, Garcia had enrolled at East Georgia College in Statesboro, Georgia, in fall 2008, but he would never graduate. He would have to wait almost a decade to accomplish that mission.

Not even a year after starting college, Garcia heard his National Guard unit would soon be deployed. His enlistment contract with the guard allowed him to finish his degree before going on his first deployment, but he didn’t want to stay behind while his friends sacrificed so much for the country. He wanted to have their back.

“I felt it was my duty to go,” he said. “If they were looking for volunteers, it meant that they needed people.”

He requested a military withdrawal, and in the fall 2009 he was deployed to Afghanistan.

He stayed there for a year, fulfilling his dream of fighting for his country, but never lost focus on getting a college degree.

Upon returning home in fall 2010, however, Garcia realized it was too late for him to register for classes and go back to school.

He also realized he was getting very close to his girlfriend Kimberly. They had met in college before Garcia was deployed but their relationship wasn’t very serious then. The distance, however, brought them together.

In December 2010, Kimberly got her nursing degree, and the couple decided to move to Augusta, where their families lived.

They moved in together, meaning Garcia had to find work to help pay the bills. That’s when he took on as many part-time jobs as he could find on top of his monthly military drills with the National Guard.

Work plus his military requirements also meant Garcia could not go back to college – at least not yet.

A couple years passed, and Garcia was finally able to find a stable, full-time job at a car service company. He didn’t really enjoy what he did, and he still wasn’t making enough to grow his family. He wasn’t happy.

He wanted to go back to school. But how could he pay for his degree when he was living paycheck to paycheck?

Kimberly, however, pushed him to pursue his dream.

After talking, planning, and budgeting, the couple knew that this second deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 would help Garcia fulfill his second dream.

As a reservist for the Georgia National Guard, Garcia only got paid for the short amount of time he spent in his monthly military drills. During deployment, he would receive full-time benefits.

The extra money would help him and his fiancée save enough for him to go back to school – and that’s what he was doing sitting there on his bed in Afghanistan.

After a long day of work at Forward Operating Base Shank in the country’s Logar Province, Garcia was back in his military housing unit, which looked like a shipping container with a window, a door and a little AC unit at the front. With his laptop on his lap, he sat on his bed at the back end, in his improvised room, trying to do homework.

To avoid bothering his roommate who lay down only eight steps away behind the curtain that separated their personal spaces, Garcia put his earbuds on.

He had about two hours of homework to do for his online anatomy class – he had an interest in becoming a physician assistant.

But it was as if things were stacked against him.

Working toward an online degree while deployed didn’t leave much time for sleep. And he knew he would have to work another 10 to 12 hours the next day and would then have study two to three hours again.

It seemed like a never-ending battle.

Garcia also struggled with the wireless internet, which was not the most reliable service in Afghanistan.

“It was hit or miss,” he said. “Some days were better than others.”

Some days he had to fly to other military bases in Afghanistan, so he always made sure to carry his Go-Bag with three days worth of clothes and hygiene products and, of course, his laptop. He tried to do his homework whenever he had some free time.

That went on for two and a half months.

“It was a defining moment at the end of that quarter,” Garcia said. “Just taking that one course was hard. I couldn’t continue trying to take online courses while being deployed. It wasn’t possible.”

That’s when Garcia made a life-changing decision – one that would converge his two life dreams of serving his country and having a college degree.

While still deployed, he began looking for universities close to home. He realized that online classes weren’t a fit for him. He preferred to interact with professors and other students face-to-face. During his search for the ideal college, he found Augusta University.

The combination of affordability and curriculum captured Garcia’s attention. So he reached out to the university’s Office of Military and Veterans Services.

“I contacted them while being deployed, and the welcome and the ease of information and access that they provided me is kind of like, ‘You know, I want to go there,’” he said. “I was able to get everything set up [while deployed].”

Garcia returned home from Afghanistan in the fall 2014, and started classes in January 2015.

At first, he wasn’t sure what he was going to study. He liked the idea of becoming a physician assistant, but also enjoyed working with computers.

The certainty about what career path to follow came when the Office of Personnel Management, the human resources arm of the federal government, was hacked in April 2015.

Both Garcia and Kimberly, who worked as a nurse for the Department of Veterans Affairs, received a letter from the federal government saying the breach could have affected them.

“It was kind of daunting to know that someone easily obtained my information and could use it to essentially be me,” he said. “That kind of sparked interest in me [for the cybersecurity field].”

Garcia went to talk to his academic adviser Markus Bacha, who works for the Augusta University Cyber Institute and the new School of Computer and Cyber Sciences. Bacha guided Garcia and further explained to him the fields of information technology and cybersecurity.

“Markus was definitely a huge impact as far as why I went IT and why I actually chose cyber with IT,” he said.

Garcia had found his passion.

College life was not without struggles, however.

“Obviously, coming back to school as an adult… it takes some adjustment,” he said.

Being in a classroom with students who were almost a decade younger than him proved difficult at first. But like the challenges he had faced before, Garcia overcame this one and kept marching forward.

“Once you get back into the flow of everything, you don’t even think about age anymore,” he said.

Some of the younger students who were fresh out of high school became his tutors for subjects like math.

“I leaned on them for help,” he said. “And sometimes those younger students leaned on us for some experience in certain courses.”

In order to help other students like him adapt to this new college environment, Garcia began working for the university’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs – the same office that made his transition from combat zone to college campus easier. He used his experience to help with the Green Zone Program, which trains faculty and staff in assisting military and veteran students succeed in college.

As a student, Garcia also excelled.

In fall 2017, he was one of only three students in Georgia – all of whom were from Augusta University – to receive a prestigious scholarship from the Department of Defense.

As a requirement for that scholarship, Garcia will be working for the Department of Defense after he graduates in May 2018.

He won’t be a frontline soldier any longer, but he will continue to serve his country – and all thanks to his college degree in information technology with a concentration in cybersecurity.

“I’m honored to be able to help in a different perspective,” Garcia said. “Now I’m part of the support team that helps those out in the field.”

As his two life dreams converge, Garcia is harvesting the fruits of his hard work. And he couldn’t be where he is if it weren’t for his wife, Kimberly.

“It’s definitely been a rough ride,” he said. “I give her a lot of credit. She’s picked up a lot of the financial support while I’ve been in school.”

Garcia has waited for this moment for almost 10 years. All the part-time jobs, all the weekends and late evenings at work, and his two deployments to Afghanistan paid off.

Now married, with a larger family and with a stable job in a field he loves, Garcia will finally walk across the stage on graduation day in May and will be able to tell his wife and two-year-old daughter, “Mission accomplished.”

Follow in Jeremy’s footsteps:

Learn more about the Information Technology degree and other programs offered through Augusta University’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, a new school to prepare the next generation of computer and cyber professionals — right here in Augusta, Georgia.

At Augusta University, success is a choice.

This spring, we celebrate graduating seniors by recognizing students who are choosing to better themselves and their communities in 2018.

Celebrate with these members of Jaguar Nation and the entire Class of 2018 using the hashtag #AUGgrad.

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About the author

Arthur Takahashi

Arthur Takahashi is Digital Media Coordinator at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706–446–5128 or atakahashi@augusta.edu.