/Too poor for school: Military offers a gateway to an education

Too poor for school: Military offers a gateway to an education

Grisel Davila pictured above, photo by Kristopher Rivera
Grisel Davila pictured above, photo by Kristopher Rivera

Story by Kristopher Rivera
Leélo en español

Before the slivers of sunlight seep into the city, Grisel Davila, 19, begins her day at 4 a.m., making the long drive from her home in the Lower Valley to participate in physical training by 6 a.m. at the University of Texas El Paso throughout the semester.

“(My family) moved to a lot of houses, we didn’t have anywhere to stay. Right now, we’re staying with my grandparents,” says Grisel, sophomore criminal justice major and cadet in the UTEP Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

Grisel is among many students in the El Paso region, who chose the military as a means to an education and a better life.

Like many UTEP students, she was born in El Paso, but raised in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. At the age of 7, Grisel, along with her mother and sister, moved back to El Paso when their father abandoned the family. “My dad, he would physically hurt my mom. He beat her up a lot of times to the point (that) she was in the hospital many times,” Grisel says. “My mom finally decided this was not going to keep going. One of the times, he beat her up so bad she fell down the stairs and she lost the baby she was expecting. He didn’t come home for about a week. That’s when my mom decided it was time for us to take off. So we took off with the help of my grandparents and my uncle.”

Once in El Paso, Davila went to different schools. She ended up settled at a school in the Lower Valley—Presa Elementary School. “I was super depressed, but I wanted to be the strongest one since I’m the oldest one,” Grisel says. “Seeing my mom crying every day in her room, it was just really hard for me. I didn’t grow up in a childhood, where I could say it was perfect–I struggled a lot.”

Fortunately for Grisel, she had a teacher who was able to motivate her to endure the adversity. When she reached Del Valle High School, she joined the Junior ROTC program, which she said helped distract her from her personal troubles at home.

“Honestly, at first, my goal wasn’t to be military,” Grisel says. “It was just ‘I’m going to try this to see if it’s fun.’ I ended up staying and they helped me.” She graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class—13th out of 458 students. She then joined the ROTC with a full scholarship at UTEP.

Lt. Col. Alfred Roach, professor of military science at UTEP, said the program has a few students who are first-generation college students.

Several cadets can get a full four-year scholarship at the national level, but Lt. Col. Roach can only grant two-year and three-year scholarships. About 25 percent of the 110 cadets he has in the program are on scholarships, he says. If cadets go through four years of military science with satisfactory grades, pass their evaluations, along with training, then they can earn an officer’s commission in the U.S. Army, Army Reserve or the Army National Guard.

“After four years of college—if you go regular Army—from day one you’re now a salaried worker at one of the biggest employers in the United States,” says Lt. Col. Roach.

As of now, Grisel is still working hard to improve her situation. “I have to also work a full-time job at Little Caesar’s Pizza. Sometimes I come (to work) and I’m just tired. I want to go home and sleep because I’m a full-time student and full-time ROTC,” Davila says. “Even though it does get tiring, this is what I want to do as a career. I want to keep going.  Even going to law school in order to be a JAG officer, which is the Judge Advocate General corps in the military.”

Robert Oropeza, 34, came from a lower-middle class family, and at one point was homeless when he was about 10 years old.  “Of course, growing up we didn’t have much money,” he says. “After high school there was no way I was going to be able to pay for college.

His father was a locksmith, but lost his job. His mother was a hairdresser. “For her to raise this family by herself, and with another kid coming on the way—she was pregnant with my little brother—it was very, very difficult to juggle that on herself,“ Robert says. “I guess they were just going through some tough times. We were homeless. People get homeless.”

For a while, however, it seemed possible for Robert to go to college after high school. He received a grant and went to a community college, then enrolled at UTEP for about a year, he says. “I knew there was no way I was going to be able to pay for college just on that grant, doing what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be a police officer. I wanted to have all these other opportunities. I thought maybe police officer, maybe FBI, you never know.”

At the age of 23, Robert joined the Marine Corps in 2002, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “I came from a poor family and that was the only way I could pay for college,” he says.

Robert says being in the Marine Corps was an interesting experience, but mainly due to the people he met. “As far as the hazing and a lot of the other aspects—not the friendly people—but the bullies, I hated that so much,” he says. “Some of the training was horrible because it was in the middle of the desert.”

Robert eventually became a Marine, but was discharged in 2004 after a physical injury that left him unable to remain in service. He suffered a ruptured eardrum after shooting a special application scoped rifle—a 50-caliber sniper rifle. This happened right before he and his platoon were about to deploy to Iraq.

“I talked to the guys (from my platoon) after they came back. One of our sergeants got killed—Sergeant Davis. In fact, I have his last picture ever

taken of him with his children,” Robert says. “A lot of stuff happened to some people there. I just really wish I could have been there with them. I trained with these guys and to just leave…at the time I thought, ‘I’m going to get out, hell yeah’ …and now thinking back on it, maybe I should have stayed with them because I trained so long with these guys, made good friendships.”

Upon returning, Robert had a hard time transitioning back into civilian life and did not enroll in school immediately. He said he got “lazy for a few months.” Eventually, he got himself together, returned to his old job at Red Lobster, went to the Veterans Affairs office and got everything he needed to return to school again.

Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and went on to graduate school. He is expecting to complete his master’s degree in May 2014. He says he wants to continue his education and earn a Ph.D. in philosophy.


The military’s prominence in El Paso

Data from the public affairs office of the 8th Marine Corps District shows that during 2013 fiscal year, the Marine Corps recruited one African American recruit, 18 European/Anglo recruits and 67 recruits of Hispanic descent from the El Paso region.

Of these 86 recruits, 83 were high school graduates. Four had some college credits, but did not yet have a degree. Nationally, 99 percent of Marine recruits are high school graduates.For citizenship, 83 of the 86 recruits were U.S. citizens.

The chief analysis branch of the G3 Ops Division of the U.S. Army recruiting command found that from the El Paso area, for the 2013 fiscal year, there were 376 recruits. Out of that total, 229 were Hispanic, 77 Caucasian, nine Asian/Pacific Islander, one Native American and 60 African-American.

Of the 376 recruits, 310 had a high school diploma, 24 had some college, six had an associate’s degree, 21 had a bachelor’s degree and two had a master’s degree.

According to public affairs at the Air Force recruiting service, from the El Paso area in the 2013, there were a total of 130 recruits. Of that total, 117 had an associate’s degree, five had a master’s degree and the remaining had some sort of high school diploma or GED.

Christopher Martin, 31, is a U.S. Army veteran who served from 2002-06. He was an air rescue flight medic and served one combat tour in Iraq in 2005. He is currently a senior multidisciplinary studies major and works at the Military Student Success Center at UTEP. “Historically, especially here in the El Paso region, the military has been a very viable option for people who want a way out of whatever economic or social or family level issues or environment that they exist in,” Christopher says.

The Army built and sustained a lot of El Paso over the years, going back to the days of the horse cavalry and General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s command of the 8th Brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas, in 1914, says Martin, who comes from a family that has a long history of military service in the Marine Corps and Navy.

“You have a lot of males, not just whites, but historically a lot of Hispanics joining the military out of the El Paso region for those better options—to get out of whatever it is—to break away from farm life or from manual labor,” Christopher says.

Christopher also says that the military developed education and home loan benefits—an opportunity for them to get a college degree, when they wouldn’t have had it before, and a job with benefits. Some benefits include the military health care system, which takes care of the member and their family. “The military does offer an option of stability,” he says.

As a peer leader at UTEP, students have approached Christopher with thoughts of joining the military. “I also tell them to believe about a third of everything the recruiter tells them,” he says. “(As) recruiters, their job is to put feet in boots and they’ll tell candidates just about anything that will get them to sign that paper.”

He says one reason the military is so appealing is because of the small-town syndrome, and he has come across college students at UTEP, who have never been on a commercial airplane.  “I make sure they have a real idea of what they’re potentially getting into to as well as weighing the benefits, gains and the cost,” Christopher says. “Whatever you do in life always ask yourself, ‘at what cost?’”

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