U.S. Marines veteran Jordan Petersen is pursuing a neuroscience degree at Coalition member Pomona College. He hopes to one day become a doctor and help veterans living with PTSD and brain injuries. Petersen’s story sheds light on not only the value of a college education to veterans, but also the value of veterans to their colleges and their communities.
How Veteran Jordan Petersen '19 Went From Unlikely Academic to Neuroscience Major
Story by: Carla Guerrero
originally published Nov. 7, 2017, on Pomona College’s News website
Voted “class clown” in high school, with grades that veered from A’s to F’s, Jordan Petersen ’19 surprised his friends back home in Maui when he decided to enlist in the Marines.
Now a transfer student majoring in neuroscience at Pomona, Petersen says his military service put him on a path to academic success, though that was far from his mind when he made the big life decision right after finishing high school.
“I wanted to do something different,” says Petersen. “And no one expected me to join the military.”
His recruiter convinced him to become a linguist, so Petersen spent two years at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Ironically enough, his first taste of the military meant going back to school: “I had this grand scheme for avoiding academics and I ended up going to the most academically intensive DoD [Department of Defense] school there was.”
After deftly picking up Mandarin Chinese (Petersen found out he had a knack for it), earning an associate’s degree and graduating with honors, Petersen says he started to realize that perhaps he did have the potential to be an academic.
“I was observing myself succeeding in school. Being at an intense academic institution in the military, it’s your duty—your job—to do well. I had to get good grades because it was my job,” recalls Petersen. “I found myself succeeding in academia for what felt like the first time in forever but even then, I wasn’t sold on going back to college.”
Petersen served in the Marines for nearly five and a half years and was twice deployed to Okinawa, Japan. His transition back to civilian life was a bit rocky – it was tough leaving behind his buddies and figuring out what was next. Lucky for him, his wife Christina, who he met while studying in Monterey, was there to help him find his way.
As Petersen was getting out of the military, his wife was getting accepted to veterinary school to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a doctor of veterinarian medicine. This was a huge inspiration for him and he started to realize that he might want to become a doctor too, even if he hadn’t been planning it since childhood.
Petersen enrolled at a Los-Angeles-area community college, Mt. San Antonio College, where he took almost every class he could – enrolling every semester, including summer and winter sessions.
By his second or third semester, Petersen saw that he had really good grades, and for the first time, he says, “I realized I was a competitive applicant, I can shoot for the moon and I have a good chance of hitting it.”
As he made plans to transfer, Petersen began thinking of the Ivy League schools – the ones you see in the movies, he says. Thanks to the Leadership Scholar Program (LSP), a program that provides Marines with assistance in the admissions process to four-year colleges and universities, he had a dedicated support system to help him navigate the process.
That’s when his wife pointed out a hidden gem in their own backyard: Pomona College, a highly-selective undergraduate college—one that he felt could offer the type of academic challenge he was looking for.
But when he first saw the then-9.1 percent admittance rate, Pomona felt out of reach.
“The thing that made it feel attainable was the veterans article from last year, and I thought, these are people who are in similar situations,’’ says Petersen, noting one particular student, Mo Dyson ’19, another Marine who had transferred to Pomona from nearby Citrus College.
“I thought, these are other people like me doing this—I might actually have a chance,” says Petersen.
After applying and getting accepted, Petersen reached out to LSP, which put him in touch with Director of Admissions Adam Sapp. Soon after, Petersen received an email from Sapp that made “the biggest difference.”
“What I got back from Adam was a five-paragraph email telling me why I was an exemplary applicant, why he had been so excited to read my application, and why he thought I would be a great student at Pomona.”
“That [email] stood out more than anything.”
Fast-forward to the middle of his first semester at Pomona, and Petersen is finding the academic rigor to be everything he expected plus more.
“I find I’m thriving and learning a crazy amount,” says Petersen who has little time to take classes outside his neuroscience major but adds with a smile, “The difficulty is what makes this place great.”
Petersen gets his ambition to take on challenges from his mom, a single mother who worked long hours in the service industry, from restaurants to hospitality, and is now working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Today, says Petersen, his mom is considering going back to school, too: “She had me at 19 when college was on the horizon but I came along and mixed everything up. She raised me as a single mom… and we never felt that far apart in age. She was my mother and my best friend.”
Determined to overcome the academic challenges that his neuroscience major throws his way, Petersen wants to one day be at the forefront of research helping veterans dealing with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.
“We hear about it all the time, how veterans have trouble reintegrating into society— and even myself, without PTSD, I had trouble reintegrating back into society. The lack of structure, losing daily contact with my friends, I had a lot of trouble readjusting. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for other veterans [with PTSD]. I want to do what I can to mitigate that.”
Petersen urges any veteran who is considering going back to school to not focus on the negatives, like how difficult it might be becoming a civilian or how hard homework will be.
“Anyone considering going to college, know that there are other veterans there too and you’re not alone,” says Petersen. “Don’t be intimidated to go back to school. I didn’t do well in high school but everyone should shoot for the stars… I think it’s important for veterans to know there’s a place for them, especially at a place like Pomona.”