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Former Marines’ new mission: Studying pre-med at Pomona College

Pomona College (Nostalgicwisdom)

Two former Marines are starting the next phase of their careers at Pomona College: becoming doctors.

Chris Vasquez

Chris Vasquez, 28, was born in the Bronx and raised there, in New Jersey and South Florida. He was a seventh-grader living in New York City when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred.

“My dad was a retired firefighter,” he said. “I remember how hard it hit him.”

After high school, Vasquez found himself rudderless and without direction.

“I had been a dishwasher for about a year; I wasn’t doing much,” he said.

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In January 2009, he enlisted in the Marines, following the footsteps of several veterans in his family, including his father, who was a Navy veteran before becoming a firefighter.

“Iraq was winding down but Afghanistan was picking up,” said Vasquez, who did reconnaissance work aboard ships deployed to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. “It was some of the most dangerous years in Afghanistan.”

But when he left the Corps, he was right back where he started, drifting aimlessly in South Florida, selling telephones at an AT&T store, serving in the Florida National Guard and taking community college classes.

But when he began working as a scribe in a medical office, he saw a chance to recapture the adrenaline and meaning he found in the military: “I realized I wanted to go the doctor route.”

Vasquez had fallen in love with Southern California during a posting there and applied to colleges in the area, eventually choosing Pomona College in Claremont, where he’s majoring in molecular biology, and expects to graduate in 2019. And thanks to a scholarship from Pomona College, he’s able to save his GI Bill benefits for medical school.

Jordan Petersen

Jordan Petersen, 25, grew up in Riverside and Fullerton, before moving with his single mother to Hawaii for high school. He was never the obvious choice to join the Marines.

“I was voted class clown,” he said. “I was always loud, outgoing, energetic. I applied to one college — for theater arts.”

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But Petersen also had a habit of tackling his fears head-on. He had been scared of water in high school, and decided to join the swim team.

So, in an effort to get out of the hassle of applying for financial aid for college, he picked up a flyer about joining the military instead.

“As the only child of a single mother, I spent a lot of time away from my father,” Petersen said. “I didn’t feel manly and there’s nothing more manly than joining the Marine Corps.”

But the would-be theater major had a gift for languages, and Petersen found himself shipped off to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, where he was assigned to learn Mandarin.

“I joined because I didn’t want to go to college, because I thought it was super-lame,” he said, “and I ended up doing the most academically rigorous thing.”

There, he met the woman he’d eventually marry. His wife decided to pursue a career as a veterinarian, getting accepted at Western University in Pomona just as his commitment to the Marines ended.

“Because my wife in in veterinary school, I started to think I should be a doctor, too,” Vesquez said.

Like Vasquez, Petersen hopes to graduate in 2019, with a degree in neuroscience.

And once again, the Armed Forces intervened, with an Army scholarship to pay for Petersen’s wife’s veterinary education, which Petersen plans to emulate. Both of them will be required to serve in the military as medical professionals after completing their educations and residencies.

“By the time I’m done with my commitment, I’m a few years away from military retirement, have no debt and I’m a medical doctor,” Petersen said.

Collegiate culture clash

Arriving at Pomona College, Vasquez found himself up to a decade older than many of his classmates, with a military background and life experiences very different than most of them.

Pomona College has five veterans currently enrolled out of a total of 1,642 students, according to a spokeswoman.

It’s been tough at times for Vasquez.

“You have a hard time relating. The sense of humor is different. It’s almost like a different culture,” he said. “I’m viewing it as a mission.”

Coming to the Claremont Colleges has also meant encountering ideas and points of view Peterson has never dealt with in person before.

“Just being at college, wow, they have so many different perspectives,” Petersen said.

Military discipline, and being older and wiser, has paid off.

“Given my work ethic in high school, my attitude toward academics and my interest in general, my college experience would have been a checkerboard of pass and fail,” Petersen said.

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© 2017 the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.