Med school student: Military service helped me escape poverty

After 9 years, a 3 minute reunion at the border
After 9 years, a 3 minute reunion at the border

Before he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, Javier Galvan had pretty much given up.

"I didn't have anything going for me," he said. "I didn't see a future."

Galvan's father had left when he was five years old. Struggling to get by, his mother moved Galvan and his two siblings from California back to her hometown in Mexico where they lived without electricity or hot water.

Three years later, the family moved again -- this time, into a friend's garage in San Diego, California.

Javier Galvan
Javier Galvan as a child.

His mother, a high school dropout, didn't expect much. "Just finish high school," he recalls her pleading with him.

But Galvan was having a hard time in school. He had also taken on the added responsibilities of helping to care for his siblings and working.

One day, a Marine recruiting officer had just spoken to the high school students. The recruiter gave a good pitch. "'Oh, you get to travel the world,' they said... They had me. Plus, I was pretty hopeless at the time," Galvan recalled.

It was in the Marines that Galvan decided to become a doctor. Once his enlistment was over, he enrolled in a local community college and then transferred to San Francisco State University, where he graduated magna cum laude.

Today he's a med student at the University of California, San Francisco. And in April, he also became one of 30 people to receive the 2017 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, which pays up to $90,000 for the graduate educations of immigrants or children of immigrants.

Here is Javier Galvan's American Success Story:

What's been your biggest hurdle so far and how did you overcome it?

When we came [back] to the United States, the only requirement my mother had for me was to finish high school, because she didn't finish. Education actually wasn't a priority for me. I had to focus on the well-being of my siblings. I had to help pay rent. Education took a backseat.

But I wouldn't be where I am today with just a high school diploma. Joining the military helped me to overcome my circumstances. When I joined, I had a guaranteed paycheck, a roof over my head, and three square meals, all things that I didn't have growing up.

Javier Galvan
Galvan when he was serving in the Marines.

Do you think that you were given fewer opportunities to get ahead than your peers?

I wouldn't say I was given fewer opportunities, but I started further back than others. Opportunities were clearly there. I didn't get to where I am without them.

Related: I left my six-figure job to start a non-profit

What's been the biggest break to help you reach where you are now?

It would probably be my deployment to Iraq two years into the military.

At that point, I'd lived without having to worry about what I was going to eat or where I was going to live. I could apply myself 100% to what I was doing.

The military sent me to school to train me for my job as a mechanic. I remember finishing second in my class.

I'd gone K through 12 being told I wasn't smart and then here I was, finishing second in my class.

In Iraq, I was assigned to a vehicle I had never worked on in my life. I remember buckling down to study that technical manual. I became the master at fixing that truck. That was the moment where I was like: Hey, if you apply yourself, if you put in 110%, you're going to get a good outcome.

Javier Galvan
Javier and his partner Kayla, during his "white coat ceremony," in 2015.

Has anyone helped you get to where you are now?

Growing up, I didn't have father mentors, and I didn't know that I was looking for mentorship as a child. I didn't know what mentorship was.

I had a supervisor in the military who was also Hispanic. He'd grown up in L.A. and I remember telling him I wanted to leave and study medicine. He said, "Hey, I've seen what you can do. If you just do what you're doing now, I think you'll be successful." I took his advice, and it paid off.

Related: NYU dean wants to teach low-income students 'how to fish'

When I got to the University of California San Francisco Medical School, the first thing I did was seek out mentors at a diversity orientation run by Dr. Denise Davis. After the orientation, I gave her a hug and said, "I actually feel welcomed here."

She and Dr. Leigh Kimberg have been instrumental in getting me to where I am today.

Is there one thing that you do every day that helps you to achieve your goals?

I do a lot of work [mentoring] youth in the Bay Area. It keeps me going. They look like me and they're like, "He made it. Maybe I can, too."

Related: Undocumented DREAMer: 'We've invested in this community'

Javier Galvan
Galvan, his partner Kayla and their daughter Aliyanna.

How do you define success, and do you think that you've achieved it?

I'm still in medical school and in all honesty, I don't have much to show for it other than being rewarded with the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship. But I'm in a position where I've been successful.

I know in a few years, I'll have a title, and I will have made it.

You've fought for this country. How do you feel about President Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric?

As a former Marine, when I hear rhetoric like his, it doesn't sit well with me. You can't be the leader of what we call "a free nation" and advocate for oppression.

Mortgage & Savings


LendingTree

Newsletter

CNNMoney Sponsors