Marines Corps veteran Kyleen Gonzalez has the wherewithal to conquer almost anything.

At the beginning of the fall term, the 28-year-old Oregon State University-Cascades student worked graveyard shifts as a Transportation Security Administration agent at the Redmond Airport. At 8 a.m., the transportation officer would commute to Bend to attend her senior capstone class. The full-time job and 16-credit course load would seem insurmountable if Gonzalez, who served as a Marine for four years, didn’t like a challenge.

“I’m pretty motivated. I want to do well, and I think a lot of it comes from the Marine Corps,” Gonzalez said between classes. “College wasn’t really pushed on me when I was a kid. But I knew I was the kind of person who didn’t want to sit around and not do anything. I wanted to make a better life for myself.”

Gonzalez is one of 62 veterans at OSU-Cascades this fall — and one of nine female veterans among the university’s 1,204-person student body — who served in the military before pursuing a college education.

In the week leading up to Veterans Day, OSU-Cascades showed appreciation for student veterans with a string of events, including a luncheon and a large display of thank-you cards written by fellow students. Veteran Army medic Elvin Aponte, a father of two who is studying kinesiology, said he was touched.

“It’s pretty nice to see and know that you have support from your fellow students,” he said.

Friday’s campus closure allowed student veterans, service members and the general student body time to prepare for Veterans Day. Five to 10 OSU-Cascades student veterans will take part in the OSU-Cascades’ Veterans Club float that will roll in the 18th Annual Veterans Day Parade, which begins in downtown Bend at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Zola Nkansah, OSU-Cascades’ financial aid and veterans coordinator, said it is important to recognize veterans on campus.

“Veteran students are coming from a different background. They have different stories, different experiences,” Nkansah said. “In that regard, I see them enriching our lives on campus. Their experiences give them a different perspective.”

Veterans tend to make for more mature students: “They’ve been through a lot, and they know exactly what they want to achieve in life,” Nkansah said. Many are “nontraditional students,” meaning they didn’t come straight from high school and often have children. Among OSU-Cascades student veterans, the oldest is 55 and the youngest is 24. More than half hail from Central Oregon. A majority use the G.I. Bill to afford tuition, books and living expenses.

Nkansah, who was raised in a military family by her mother and father, a retired colonel, is one of several OSU staff members who help student veterans navigate through college. She ensures they receive benefits, explains how application processes work and organizes the Veterans Club, which has around 15 members.

“Working with student veterans is a very positive experience,” Nkansah said. “(My background) allows me to understand how much (student veterans) have sacrificed so we can live the lives we want to live.”

Continued service

Gonzalez began her four years of service with the Marines Corps in 2009. She was 19. When deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, Gonzalez worked as a combat engineer in security logistics, accompanying supply trucks on dangerous routes.

“It was pretty tense,” she said. “It got pretty crazy, sometimes.”

At OSU-Cascades, Gonzalez is a stand-out student in the Computer Science department, which counts five veterans. Now in her third year, Gonzalez, a “super junior,” has made the Scholastic Honor Roll by maintaining a 3.5 grade point average or higher. She hopes to graduate in spring 2018. As a part of Gonzalez’s senior capstone class, she is working with Abilitree to build a notification app to help the Bend nonprofit better communicate with its clients, many of whom deal with mobility issues.

Gonzalez left her TSA job to free up time for an internship. The self-described “latchkey kid,” who grew up in her grandmother’s home in Whittier, California, is finalizing a technological outreach program with La Pine Elementary School that will teach children the basics of coding. She said she was inspired by her teacher’s example.

“Professor Yong (Bakos) has done a lot of things to bring technology to kids,” she said. “It would have been awesome if when I was a kid growing up in the outskirts of L.A., someone came and showed us that technology. (In Central Oregon) I want to bring that technology to them.”

Historical, national appreciation

Rob Scevers, a Marine Corps veteran originally from Gilchrist, chose OSU-Cascades for its proximity to family and the outdoors, in which he wanted to immerse his three young children. Scevers’ concern for the younger generation inspired the first-year student to seek a degree in American Studies, which he hopes to put to use as a history teacher.

The 29-year-old Bend resident said his Marines-honed time management skills serve him well, although he had to brush up on some subjects.

“College is a different beast, but the time management correlates perfectly because as a Marine, you’re on a schedule constantly.”

Scevers, a standout athlete while at Gilchrist High School, joined the Marine Corps when he was 21. It was during the Great Recession, and Scevers kept getting laid off from construction work.

“I wanted to join for a sense of financial security,” he said.

Scevers served eight years with the Marines, including a 2011 tour in Afghanistan. His responsibilities sometimes involved dangerous, demanding tasks.

“I was the guy out there looking for the bombs,” he said. He also labored in horizontal and vertical construction while rebuilding patrol bases, he said. Most of all, Scevers valued his leadership role when passing on knowledge and skills to other Marines. During his time with the Marine Corps, Scevers developed an interest in American history. One book that resonated with him was the award-winning World War II memoir “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” by E.B. Sledge.

“I got more in depth with history in the Marine Corps because it’s all about history and traditions,” he said, adding that history is “about understanding how something came to be and why something is the way it is.”

OSU-Cascades’ average student age of 29 camouflages the veterans, who often postpone a college education to serve. Still, Scevers said, he can pick out his fellow veterans when he looks closely.

“You can kind of sense when someone is a veteran,” Scevers said. “It’s in their demeanor. They’re a little more mature in how they speak and present themselves.”

OSU-Cascades instructor Yong Bakos feels indebted to the student veterans.

“It feels like a great honor to work with our veterans and for them to be a part of our curriculum. I want them to succeed,” he said. “The least I can do is help deliver a world-class learning experience for our veterans.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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