Chris Vazquez ’19 was a seventh grader living in the Bronx, New York, when two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. Eight years later, at the age of 19, Vazquez enlisted in the Marine Corps seeking justice for his city, as well as a purpose for his young life.

A younger Chris Vazquez as a U.S. Marines cadet.

Chris Vazquez as a young cadet of the U.S. Marines.

Growing up, Vazquez says he “was not the best student” and with a slight smile, admits he was “a bad kid.” Moving around a lot, he says he was confused about what he wanted to do after graduating from high school until he found amateur boxing, which gave him “a hunger for something greater.”

“I didn’t have much else going on in life. I had one semester in community college and I came to a decision to join the Marine Corps,” says Vazquez.

Though his father had served in the Navy, his grandfather served in the Army in Korea, and his uncles served in other branches, Vazquez didn’t grow up with the same desire. 9/11 changed that.

In his boot camp platoon, Vazquez met a fellow recruit like himself: a young man from Miami (near where Vazquez’s family had moved to). Vazquez was deployed to Djibouti, near Somalia and Yemen, and his fellow recruit to Afghanistan. Vazquez later learned that his fellow recruit did not make it back. The memory follows Vazquez today.

Portrait of Chris Vazquez

Chris Vazquez is majoring in molecular biology at Pomona College.

“It made me more aware of the sacrifices service members make, and made me question what if that had happened to me? Their sacrifices motivate me to live my life to the fullest, challenging myself every day.”

Vazquez found the direction he was lacking in the Marine Corps: “Those were some of the greatest role models I’ve encountered in my life… I was able to turn myself around from a bad kid who lacked direction and who was lazy – they really helped me polish myself.”

Deployed three times, Vazquez traveled to nearly 15 countries aboard a Navy ship.

“When you're deployed, it doesn't matter what political ideology other service members identify with, social or economic backgrounds, skin color or other factors. You are united by the fact you're all Americans, and you rely on each other to return home safely.”

After almost six years, Vazquez returned home – an experience that proved to be its own kind of challenge.

“It’s scary. You’ve been living a certain lifestyle, with structure and discipline, with the camaraderie of your friends… then to transition to ‘the real world’ is a bit of shock,” he explains. “You no longer have the same bonds, the same structure in life, it’s tough. I think a lot of veterans have a tough time with that, it’s why you see high suicide rates, veterans have a hard time adjusting because the change is almost night and day.”

Vazquez wasn't sure what would come next. He went from being a Reconnaissance Marine gathering intelligence on foot-mobile clandestine missions beyond enemy lines, to jumping out of airplanes, learning how to land on enemy beaches from a boat — the type of “cool stuff you do in video games”— to a quiet, civilian life.

But the Marine Corps’ commitment to excellence stayed ingrained within Vazquez and he applied the success and discipline he had attained there to his civilian life—both at work and in school.

Vazquez enrolled in community college in Florida and he also worked as a medical scribe, a fast-paced job accompanying doctors in the emergency room to document the flow of information that goes into the electronic health records of the patients.

Vazquez’s interest in the medical world began when he underwent tactical medical training in the military, a training given to soldiers to deal with the medical casualties of war. As a civilian back in Florida, the adrenaline and high stress of working in an emergency room appealed to him.

Vazquez transferred to Pomona as a molecular biology major thanks to the support of the Leadership Scholar Program (LSP), a program that provides Marines with assistance and a support system in navigating the admissions process to four-year colleges and universities.

Having finished his first semester at Pomona,  he said he welcomed the challenges presented by his molecular biology and science classes: “You’re presented with this difficult material and you have to learn it… there’s a thrill knowing I have a hard test [coming up] and knowing I can perform well.”

With a busy schedule this past semester – he had two on-campus jobs and volunteered at the Foothills AIDS Project and a Harvey Mudd research lab – Vazquez is thankful for the opportunity that Pomona has offered him to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor.

And he adds he’s thankful for the sacrifices that countless brave men and women in service have made, like the young man he met so many years ago in boot camp.

“I suppose if there was something I would like to get out there, it would be for people to try to understand the sacrifices service members make and for everyone to make the most out of the freedoms and liberties afforded to us by the brave men and women who have fought and continue to fight for us in the military.”