A photo of Jaime Gomez
Jaime Gomez, 43, graduates from USC Dornsife on May 10. “I didn’t want to regret not following my dream.” (Photo: Mike Glier.)

40-something single father, Army vet and lifelong USC fan earns bachelor’s degree

Jaime Gomez, who spent six years in the U.S. Army and 16 years in the business world before becoming a first-generation college student, graduates with honors and an undergraduate degree in history.
ByGreg Hardesty

Jaime Gomez was enjoying a comfortable life with two young children a few years ago, making a six-figure salary as a lead sales specialist for Frito-Lay Inc., when he could no longer ignore the nagging voice inside of him.

Once a high-performing student at South Gate High School in his hometown of South Gate, Calif., he loved history class and always dreamed about teaching it. But he went straight into the military after high school for six years and then started his career at Frito-Lay.

After 16 years there, Gomez took a leap of faith and decided to live off his savings to earn his college degree.

He quit his job in 2019 and a year later entered Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., becoming a first-generation college student. In fall 2022, he transferred to the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

Now, Gomez, 43, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history with honors. “I thought I would be elated, but it feels bittersweet,” he says. “USC has always been my dream school. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t following USC football, basketball, and wearing USC clothing and gear.”

An unusual path to college includes time in the U.S. Army

Gomez and his three older sisters were raised by immigrant parents from Mexico who worked in the fields before his mother became a seamstress and his father got a job in construction. Money was tight, but education was always emphasized.

But work seemed like the only option for him after high school, so Gomez committed to joining the U.S. Army when he was a senior.

“I wasn’t given much information about going to college or financial aid,” he recalls. “My sisters went straight into the workforce or got married, so I didn’t have anyone to show me the ropes.”

Less than a month after high school, Gomez was in boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He served two years and enlisted for four more as a specialist who inspected food and later taught procedures, battle readiness, tactics and physical fitness.

His military career took him to all 50 states and several countries, including Iraq and Libya, where he saw combat. He served an additional two years as a reserve in the Army after he landed his job at Frito-Lay in 2003.

But he never forgot his passion for history.

Although he had saved money, leaving his career still felt scary, Gomez recalls. By then, he was divorced with two pre-teen children.

“I was living a comfortable life, but something inside of me was just not right,” Gomez says. “I knew that I could do this, and I wanted to go back to school before I was too old. I didn’t want to regret not following my dream.”

Gomez got the news he had been accepted into USC when he was in San Diego with his then-new girlfriend, Sandra, a tax preparer who remains his partner today. “She’s my rock,” he says. “I love her.”

“It’s definitely been difficult, but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.”

His children, Dahlia, now 13, who is finishing junior high, and Octavius, 11, who will enter junior high this fall, were over the moon that their dad got accepted into USC.

Gomez got some help with tuition through financial aid as well as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. His experience at USC Dornsife has been everything he dreamed about.

“It’s definitely been difficult,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change any of it for the world.”

Professors sing exceptional graduate’s praises

Several of his history professors have inspired him. Jay Rubenstein, professor of history and religion, says Gomez has been a great student to work with.

“He brings a lot of amazing life experiences to class, and he’s terrifically insightful,” Rubenstein says. “He has a wonderfully mordant sense of humor. It’s rare to find a student who can elevate the tone of a discussion while not losing sight of the humor that makes the human condition bearable.”

Natalia Molina, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, says she’ll always remember Gomez.

“We tend to think of transfer students as ones that have to struggle to adjust to a new system, and sure, some do,” she says. “But what I’ve seen in my 20-plus years of teaching is that transfer students often work hard to get where they are and that they’re ready to hit the ground running, and Jaime is a poster child of that.”

Adds Molina: “He was always prepared, ready to engage, make a meaningful contribution, and form community with his fellow students. He brought up ideas and perspectives that haven’t been brought up in class, and sometimes even challenged what I said.

“I think people often think that the idea of challenging a professor must be disrespectful, but no — professors want students to be critical thinkers.”

Gomez says being an older student hasn’t been a big deal. “For the most part,” he says, “I’ve been treated as an equal.”

Unlike other students, Gomez lived through some of the topics Molina covered in a Mexican American history class, including protests. “But I’ve never really felt like an old man,” he says with a laugh.

In addition to preparing to graduate and fulfilling dad duties, as well as helping out his partner with her rental properties, Gomez finds time to volunteer at his local high school, where he’s an assistant football coach and mentors about 80 varsity and junior varsity students.

Gomez has been accepted into master’s degree programs and plans to get a PhD and teach college or high school history.

“Don’t let fear dictate your decisions,” he says. “I encourage everyone to follow their academic dreams. There’s nothing like the experience I had at USC.”