Veterans Shandra Dyess ’19, Mo Dyson ’18 and Trevor Pontifex ’18 are on a mission. After serving their country as U.S. Marines, now they’re adding on to their academic acumen at Pomona to continue serving, this time as civilians.
Shandra Dyess ’19 was born to tell stories.
“I’ve been telling stories since I was three years old and writing since I was six,” remembers Dyess.
Writing has been essential to her life and it has evolved from a hobby to an occupation in the Marines as a public affairs specialist; and in the future, it will transform her into a book author.
As a tenacious 19-year-old, Dyess enlisted in the Marines after she spent more than a year recovering from a biking accident. Determined to succeed in a male-dominated environment, she successfully completed the rigorous Marine boot camp and combat training. For her military occupational specialty, she chose to attend the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, where she sharpened her journalism skills including photography, social media and community relations.
While stationed at the Marines Corps Base Quantico, Virginia in 2012, she had the opportunity to work for Toys for Tots, the program that collects and distributes toys during the holidays to less fortunate children.
Working 20-hour days, Dyess was in charge of organizing 165 Toys for Tots events in a period of three months in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Each event had at least two volunteers and the scope ranged from Marines stationed outside local stores collecting toys to extravagant fundraising galas at the Smithsonian. Dyess also led the volunteers at the warehouse where toys were stored, tracked and distributed. Her community relations team did so well that they were assigned events outside of their coverage area so they could collect and distribute even more toys.
When it was over, she was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. “It was the craziest, yet most incredible time in the Marines,” recalls Dyess.
After four years of service, and now in her first semester at Pomona, Dyess is just as conscious and determined about her role as a veteran.
“It is my responsibility to educate others about what it means to serve and I now know that I will be able to relate to those who haven’t served,” says Dyess. “One of my best friends during Orientation Adventure at Pomona was 10 years younger than me. She was so impressed that I brought my own camping gear and that I was so ready for any situation.”
She also believes her responsibility is to bring awareness to issues that affect veterans. In particular, she is determined to shed light on the issue of sexual assault in the military.
Given that 52 percent of assaults are male on male and 48 percent are male on female, Dyess wonders why the issue is considered a female issue. She believes it is a cultural issue.
“I want to write a book about sexual assault in the military and want to interview those who have been assaulted,” she says. “Possibly even interview people who have sexually assaulted to try to get to the root of why it is such a large phenomenon in the military.”
She strongly believes that the issue needs to be understood from the inside out in order to be able to be fixed. Dyess, who reports she was sexually assaulted during her time in the Marines, intends to include her own story in the book.
“I want to use my story as a frame to the issue and then being extremely delicate and having great discretion with others that I interview. I want to tell their story on where they are in the process and if they decided to come forward or not. I plan to intersperse throughout the book anecdotes from my healing process.”
Musical training is not the first thing one thinks of when preparing for a career in the Marine Corps. However, when Mo Dyson ’18 enlisted, experience playing the euphonium and classical music was precisely what landed Dyson in the Marine Corps band field. The traditions, ceremonies, and professionalism of the Marine Corps appealed to Dyson, as did the chance to do meaningful work in the world.
In the U.S. Marines, Dyson had both military and musical duties; playing in some pretty impressive ceremonies and deployed with their unit to provide security on an American military base in the Middle East.
“Some of my favorite performances I did while in the Marine music program were the Tournament of Roses Band Fest, opening ceremonies for New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, and President Ronald Reagan’s funeral,” says Dyson.
However, some performances were more stressful than others. While working as an interior security guard during a 2004 deployment to Iraq, Staff Sgt. Dyson’s unit provided the music for a change in command as a new general took over the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF). This transition is usually marked by a formal ceremony, speeches and musical accompaniment, but does not usually occur in the middle of a military invasion. This one would take place on a military base in the lull between attacks on Fallujah.
With only one week to practice, the band fine-tuned their performance and prepared for a rare formal ceremony in the midst of combat.
Dyson recalls vividly that the walls of the auditorium were shaking from outgoing fire during the performance.
“We’re all in this horrible situation together, but the show must go on. We’re Marines. It was one of the scariest, yet one of the most unifying experiences I’ve ever had,” says Dyson.
After 12 years in the Marines, the Grand Rapids, Michigan native left the service after the band to which they were assigned was decommissioned. Seeking to redeem a previous unsatisfying college experience, Dyson enrolled at Citrus College, earning an associate’s degree and then transferred to Pomona.
At the beginning, the transition to civilian life was extremely difficult. Overwhelmed by the free time and the lack of structure, Dyson suffered from severe anxiety and depression. But, family kept Dyson grounded. The support of Dyson’s spouse Erika, a faculty member at Harvey Mudd College and having more time to spend with their two children made a significant difference.
Experiencing mental health challenges as well as frustrating delays in receiving medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs did have one positive outcome. It has inspired Dyson to pursue a career in public policy that will improve access to and quality healthcare for veterans.
“Mo has a clear idea of what they want to accomplish in public health and related fields, and what liberal arts education is best at is helping people approach and assess their ideas about the world and themselves from multiple perspectives. Pomona and the other four [undergraduate] colleges offer many ways to get these perspectives, and I’m sure, knowing Mo, that they will take every opportunity they can to take advantage of these opportunities,” says Dyson’s spouse, Erika.
Even though a busy schedule of classes and family obligations have left little time for music in the first semester at Pomona, Dyson plans to get back into music. “I used to sing at church in Michigan so I’m looking forward to trying out for Pomona’s choir in the spring.”
Santa Barbara, California native Trevor Pontifex ’18 is taking full advantage of his undergraduate experience at Pomona. In the last two years, the 26-year-old has gone to Sequoia National Park as part of the Geology Department’s field trips, he builds sets for the Theatre Department, teaches self-defense classes at Rains Center, takes ballet and hip hop classes, and regularly attends Spanish language tables at Oldenborg, to name a few activities.
But even though the former Marine sergeant always knew he wanted a challenge, his path to college wasn’t always as clear. Short stints at UC Berkeley and community college left him longing for a sense of community and more intellectual push.
“I needed to mature so I enlisted in the toughest branch of the armed forces,” says Pontifex.
An avid fan of cars, Pontifex wanted to learn about them more in depth and decided to become a Marine automobile mechanic. During a standard seven-month deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan, he was able to test his knowledge and worked successfully under pressure as the only automobile mechanic in his company.
But Pontifex was still longing for an intellectual challenge, something he has found at Pomona.
“In the Marine Corps, I could safely assume that I was among the smartest people in the room. At Pomona College, however, my classmates are among the brightest in the country and I find it stimulating to be in class discussions with them,” says Pontifex.
Even though the veteran doesn’t usually like to bring up his Marine Corps experience, it does come up on occasion.
“I wear my uniform every Veterans Day and the campus community thanks me for my service. It’s a great way to make students aware of the armed forces, especially the Marines. Some don’t find out until that day that I have served the country,” says Pontifex.
At Pomona, the geology major gravitated toward the field because of his affinity for the outdoors and the close-knit environment the department provides.
“He is a pleasure to have in the field under even the most difficult of circumstances. Blazing temperatures out on a lava flow in the Mojave? No problem, bring it on!” says Geology Professor Eric Grosfils of his advisee.
While Pontifex is deciding whether to pursue a career in environmental consulting or working for the federal government after Pomona, he still enjoys exploring his passion for cars. In his spare time, he races autocross with the Sports Car Club of America.
“I race in regional events and my auto mechanic background comes in very handy. Not only do I understand cars better than the average racer, but I can fix the car myself.”
During his time at Pomona, Pontifex has also made a lasting impression beyond the classroom.
“Outside of the classroom, I love the energy Trevor brings to the many other things he pursues. He is always excited to describe the dance classes he takes for instance, and I’ve been delighted that he has had the chance to interact upon occasion with my ‘tween’ son. Speaking as a father, the more positive role models like Trevor my son encounters, the happier I will be,” says Grosfils.