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U.S. Air Force Vet Turned Trojan Honors Fallen Soldiers

Monica Valencia, a sociology major in USC Dornsife, is one of more than 500 student veterans at USC. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.
Monica Valencia, a sociology major in USC Dornsife, is one of more than 500 student veterans at USC. Photo by Dietmar Quistorf.

Monica Valencia’s parents divorced when she was 12, forcing her mother to raise her and two younger brothers as a single parent. With limited resources and eviction notices following the family from Los Angeles to Riverside to Moreno Valley, Valencia seemed destined for a life of hardship.

“We sometimes struggled to choose between paying the rent, paying bills or buying food,” said the junior majoring in sociology in USC Dornsife.

Like many first-generation Mexican Americans in similar situations, Valencia chose what seemed to be her only option: Join the military.

“As the eldest child, it was my duty to find a way to help support my family,” she said.

At 19, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Valencia enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After being honorably discharged in 2008, she embarked on fulfilling her lifelong dream to attend college at USC.

This Veterans Day, Valencia joined her fellow Trojans in Hahn Plaza to read the names of the 6,300 casualties of the past decade’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The eight-hour reading of names is part of the Remembrance Day National Roll Call, a simultaneous nationwide observance in which USC joins more than 100 colleges and universities in 38 states.

One of more than 500 student veterans at USC, Valencia believes that Veterans Day is important because it reminds people of the sacrifices that members of the military service make.

“It takes a certain type of person and a certain kind of courage to enlist in the armed services and to give one’s life selflessly to your country without ever thinking twice about the chance that you might not come back home or see your family again,” she said.

In addition to the roll call, USC has hosted several activities this week to honor and promote veterans. These included “The Invisible Veterans,” a colloquium about post-traumatic stress disorder on Nov. 7 featuring Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was the United Nations commander during the Rwanda genocide. On the evening of Nov. 11, the university will host a Veterans Day reception at the Radisson Hotel.

And on Nov. 15, Valencia and some of her fellow USC student veterans will hold a panel discussion on their military experience and transition to USC.

From Airwoman to Trojan

After graduating from the Security Forces Academy at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio in 2002, Valencia filled numerous roles at military bases worldwide. This included conducting nuclear security in Minot, N.D., serving as a military police officer at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea and becoming a security forces trainer at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.

While at Spangdahlem, she graduated from the Pitsenbarger Airman Leadership School and was promoted to staff sergeant, before finally leaving the Air Force for college.

“When I was young, I would tell my father that one day I would attend USC,” Valencia said. “It was a far-reaching dream for the daughter of Mexican immigrant parents who never even finished high school.”

She first enrolled at Oxnard College in Ventura County and graduated after two years with honors, earning associates of arts degrees in sociology, anthropology and liberal arts. In fall 2010, she applied to USC.

“I thought there was no way I could ever get into USC,” Valencia said. “When I received that thick white envelope in June 2011 and read the acceptance letter, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Valencia credited USC’s programs for veterans with helping her make the transition to college life. In particular, the USC Transfer and Veteran Students Program (TVSP) serves as a comprehensive campus resource and contributes to the academic, professional and social success of student veterans.

In addition to her coursework, Valencia has found time to volunteer for numerous organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, FOOD Share and the Camarillo Healthcare Center. Currently, she volunteers as an outreach coordinator at Los Angeles High School, where she helps students prepare for college.

Her most challenging volunteer effort was picking strawberries in the agricultural fields of Ventura County. “As a result of that experience, I now have even more respect and admiration for migrant farm workers,” she said.

After her anticipated 2013 graduation from USC, Valencia plans to go to law school.

“Law has always been an interest of mine - specifically social justice issues - because growing up and during my military career, I was exposed to many injustices, and I wasn’t in the position to do anything about it,” she said.

Valencia hopes to someday represent the American Civil Liberties Union as an attorney specializing in human trafficking, violence against women, immigration rights or racial justice.