Fourth Year Transfer Student, Sociology
By Marge Perko
Where are you right now, in terms of your academic journey at UC Santa Barbara?
I’m kind of ending things here. I kind of had a non-conventional route to get here, even for a transfer student. I transferred from the community college. I ended up transferring from Pasadena Community College and then I went immediately from there to Cal State Los Angeles – and I got accepted here. So I actually transitioned from Cal State LA to here. So it was a little bit untraditional, in that regard.
I was ahead of my units for my degree in sociology when I started at UC Santa Barbara. At this point, I just have one more general education class to do -- and I’m pretty much done.
Are you excited to graduate?
Yes -- super excited! It feels pretty good to be almost done.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Pasadena, California. I went to school there and pretty much stayed there my whole life until I joined the military. I got stationed in Germany twice. Then, I went to Iraq in 2008. I did a year there.
What did your parents do?
My mother is actually an alumna of UCSB. She came here, then she went on to go to UCLA for law school.
So that probably helped your choice in university…
That helped a lot. And the other thing that helped in my choice was that the sociology program here is just top-notch. I think we’re ranked one of the highest in the nation.
What made you decide to join the military?
I had a really good friend who I used to skateboarded with in high school. He ended up joining the Marine Corps. I saw him right as he got out of his boot camp and he looked so proud.
He ended up dying a couple months later in Iraq. I wanted to do something to honor him.
That’s the reason why I joined. I didn’t want to go the Marine route so I ended up joining the Army instead. So my reasons were in part paying homage and wanting to experience even a piece of that honor, that happiness that my friend had from joining the military and the service…that sense of accomplishment. I figured if I could even get one-tenth of that, then that would be something that I would enjoy.
I didn’t have to join the military. It was a choice.
What was it like to do training?
Training was physically demanding, but it wasn’t anything that really gave me more personal hardships or anything like that. It was just more conditioning your body and conditioning your mind. When I was in the military, everybody knew they were going to go to Iraq. Things were kind of turning for the worse at that point, so everyone had this mindset that we had to be conditioned and be ready to go to war. That’s why the training was the way it was -- so you can just go in and make sure that you are ready.
When you were sent out, what were your duties?
I did the traditional job of a combat engineer. I also served in a personal security detachment, which is basically providing security and protection for dignitaries and high-ranking officials moving all over the country.
Before you went to Iraq, had you ever been to the Middle East?
No. Culturally, it was different from anything I’d ever experienced. It opened up my eyes to the way people lived outside of the United States. I really enjoyed the cultural aspect of it and being immersed in a different place.
One of the areas I did a lot of work out of was next to the city of Babylon, so I got the privilege to actually visit. It was unreal -- it’s just like stuff that you see in pictures and history books and stuff. Mostly, it was really surreal. To be there with a rifle in your hand and wearing body armor…I think there could be better circumstances for coming and visiting this beautiful area. I think a lot of the country of Iraq did have a lot of beauty to it. I would want to go back and visit if it was safer. There was a lot of beauty and history – just everything we touched was so ancient. That’s the biggest thing for me, everything had such a long history. I got a sense of that long history when I was in Europe, but I didn’t really get it until I was in the Middle East.
Did you see any action?
Yeah, I did.
Would you like to talk about what that was like?
So coming out from the military and looking forward to getting your higher education…how did that journey start for you?
That was actually really different. You’re going from a very structured environment in the military. You know when you’re going to wake up, you know what your duties are for that day -- it’s just like any other job.
Then, you go into something that’s not as structured. There’s nobody telling you to do your homework, there’s nobody telling you how to write a paper. It’s such a big difference.
I think there’s also an economic difference, because you’re going from getting a steady, guaranteed paycheck, to learning how to navigate a bureaucracy at Veterans Affairs. Sometimes it feels like jumping from the high dive into a teacup – nothing in life is going to prepare you for that moment.
Luckily, I got some pretty good guidance from the community college that I went to -- and they set me off on the right track. They actually set me up for success, to come to a university like UCSB.
Were you a parent when you first started community college?
I was barely starting community college when my first daughter was born. So there’s about a year when I was not a parent. Having kids is definitely a challenge.
How many kids do you have?
I have two -- I have a 4-year-old and a soon-to-be 18-month-old…both girls.
What did you feel when you became a dad?
When my first daughter was born, it was unreal. You’re holding this little person that you helped bring into the world. It’s this overwhelming feeling of joy, fear and anxiety, all at the same time.
Once you think about being a parent in its totality, it’s a big accomplishment and moment in your life.
Being a parent is kind of hard -- at least for me! It’s one day at a time. It’s great and something I really enjoy, being a dad. It does become a little challenging with going to school.
Being a parent is a big part of who I am. This is why the Veterans Resource Center is a great place for student veterans on campus, because we tend to be a little bit older and some of us have families. It’s nice to have a place to go to study and get things done. And a bigger thing with the the VRC is the sense of camaraderie we get with other veterans. We can talk about experiences that we can’t talk about with anybody else on campus. The VRC has a therapeutic aspect, as well as a good support system for academics. It’s really a good place, and it feels like home on campus for a lot of us.
Was it weird for you during your first time in a college classroom, being surrounded by younger students?
It was a little bit weird at first, but I did get over it. I don’t tend to tell many people that I study with, that I am a veteran. It is interesting to hear their perspectives…or lack of, in some regards. It is a little weird with the age difference. I’m 30 years old and a lot of them are in their early twenties.
Do you interact socially with students on campus?
The veterans on campus are basically my whole social network. We go out a lot together. It’s not uncommon for veterans to hang out with each other and to see each other even on the weekends. Many of the veterans have been over to my house, they’ve met my family…they’ve even met my mother!
Who takes care of your little girls while you are at school?
My wife does. She has a bachelor’s degree from UC Irvine, so she’s taken a back seat to letting me get my education. My oldest daughter’s enrolled in the daycare service that’s provided on west campus.
Santa Barbara can be an expensive town for families. How has it been for you here?
I think there is definitely an economic strain at times. Student childcare in comparison to the rest of Santa Barbara is very cheap. Same for the subsidized rent that we pay. Living on a fixed income is a tough thing to do, because the GI Bill only allows for a certain amount of money. One of the issues that we’re trying to fix with the VA is, that we’re not actually getting paid based on the zip code for the school. There’s a huge difference in rents here from the rest of the country. We are getting paid at a lesser rate. I live in Goleta and actually took a $400 pay cut moving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. I used to work at the Veteran Resource Center at Pasadena City College as one of the staff members there.
How did you first discover the Veterans Resource Center at UCSB?
It was a completely organic discovery. I came in, introduced myself when I got accepted and sat down with Kevin. I actually called him ahead on the phone, trying to get everything lined up. Being a staff member at a community college, I basically knew what to do in terms of the GI Bill, and what to do in terms of enrollment, but I just didn’t know the points of contact here on campus. Kevin was great and helped field the questions. We got everything done, so as soon as I got here, I just had to worry about what classes to enroll in.
What do you do as part of the VRC team?
Right now, I’m a liaison between the veterans on campus and the community. I go to VFW meetings, American Legion meetings and meet with groups like the Elks as a public face for the veteran community on the campus.
For example, a community member wanted to donate surfboards to us, so I helped connect the community member with the VRC. We ended up getting three surfboards donated to the center and also got the Santa Barbara Surfing Club to come in and conduct classes for us. So we had a day on the beach where they actually taught us how to use the surfboards.
We get community members dropping in all the time, donating things -- everything from convection ovens to volunteering their time. The community is very accepting of the veteran population here in Santa Barbara. People are surprised to learn exactly how many veterans are here on campus as well -- there’s about 135.
When I go to events like the Elks meetings, they often don’t know we have this population here on campus. And most of the time, they want to help. We donate time to their organization and sometimes they can donate time to us.
It’s a very fulfilling job, and it’s something that I really enjoy doing. When one of our veterans died a couple months ago, it was a big, devastating blow on campus. The community ended up coming together and really helping us at that point.
If you had an unlimited budget to improve the Veterans Resource Center, what would you propose?
I would like to allocate more space on campus for us. Then, I would like to have a small apartment building in Isla Vista dedicated to veterans. Housing is not a big issue, but the idea of having younger kids in the same classroom translates to living experiences as well. I just think proximity is important -- a lot of the students don’t have cars.
How would you assess the current supports for veteran students on campus?
We have a lot of support here on campus.
I think the orientation program is very strong. We have our own veteran orientation. I helped with the orientation last year – it’s pretty good.
We do need veteran-specific mental health support -- somebody that is trained with dealing with PTSD. I know they do have some resources on staff, but it would help to have someone with more of a specialization towards working with veterans might be a good thing.
Honestly though, when veterans get here, they’ve already gone through the gauntlet. They’ve been through community college. At the community colleges, they’re getting guys straight off the plane from a deployment. Here at UCSB, they’ve had some time to decompress and figure things out.
I think improving housing is probably the biggest thing that I would like to see. UCSB, however, is very accommodating. They tend to place veterans in graduate housing with graduate students, and I think that’s very appropriate.
What’s your typical day like as a student at UCSB?
I just wake up, have a cup of coffee, then wake up the kids and get them dressed and fed. This week, the worst mornings started at 5:30 a.m., and the best was when we were all together waking up with our kids at 9 a.m. After we all get ready, I go to my class, then afterwards I come over to the VRC to study, or get some work done, field emails, that kind of thing.
At night, I run to community meetings throughout the week and engage with some of the local groups like the American Legion, the VFW and other organizations.
What is quality time like with your family?
Fortunately, being a student gives me a pretty flexible schedule, so it’s not uncommon for us to have beach days and lots of days going to the park. They come with me on campus and hang out. They enjoy the community here and they love the Lagoon.
Are you happy here at UCSB?
It’s great. I don’t want to leave.
Would you want to stay in Santa Barbara?
I would. I really love the area and I love the people here. And I love the environment that UCSB has here in general. I would love to stay here.
Why did you choose to major in sociology?
Everyone has questions -- why things go a certain way and why things happen. Sociology is one of the few fields I’ve found that actually has an answer. So it’s basically answering the questions of why we do things -- that is a big part of sociology, as well as the study of society. That’s what draws me to sociology.
What would be your dream career?
I would be a professor. So I would go on to grad school, definitely.
I also love writing. I’m currently working on a book right now. It’s not fiction – it’s actually a sociological work. I’m in the beginning stages. I try to write weekly. I usually give myself about an hour just to sit and write. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Fortunately, my wife is supportive of it -- so I can go and take some time for myself and write.
How did you and your wife meet?
We met in Los Angeles, at a downtown bar. I was on a vacation from Germany, and living in Europe at the time. It was just kind of a chance meeting – we caught each other’s attention. We started dating and had a long distance relationship, and eventually got married in 2009.
She’s really good at helping make everything happen. She’s looking at grad school too…so it’s going to be interesting when we’re both students.
What else are you fascinated by?
I have always been into movies. Even to this day, the most expensive thing I own is a TV because I watch about ten movies a week. I’m a big movie snob. I’m actually taking a course here to go to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. That’s something I’m going to be doing – and I’m really blessed that the University is giving me the opportunity to go in and fulfill my dream of being part of the movie industry.
What are you going to do at Telluride?
Basically, watch movies for 8 to 12 hours a day. It’s a small film festival in Telluride, Colorado and there’s a lot of celebrities that will be there to premiere their movies. I’m going to be able to see films before anybody else. To be able to actually go to Q&As with the actors and writers…to be actually immersed in something I really love is such a really good opportunity that I’m getting from UCSB.
What’s on your list of the five best movies EVER?
The Big Lebowski, the Godfather, Snatch, Lock Stock Two Smoking Barrels and Sicario.