HADITHA, AL ANBAR, Iraq -- A degree from Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, could land someone a well paying job in the organization of their choice.
For one 25-year-old Santa Fe, N.M. native that organization was the United States Marine Corps.
Lance Cpl. Ruben Marinelarena attended high school in Evergreen Park, Ill. where his teachers challenged him daily to do his best.
“I had teachers in high school like, Mr. Gustfason and Ms. Longo, who made school really challenging by showing me that no dream was out of reach. That if I wanted to I could do just about anything,” said 1998 Evergreen Park Community High School graduate.
And what he wanted to do was to attend a prestigious Ivy League school: Harvard University.
“Up until that point I thought that I would never make into a school like that. I thought it was only for the rich and privileged not for a poor kid from a working class neighborhood,” Marinelarena said smiling. “I was wrong.”
After attending his freshman year at Harvard, he decided he wanted to do something more. He felt a strong need to do something for his country.
“I wanted to do more for my country than just pay taxes,” Marinelarena said. “I wanted to be a Marine. It’s kind of a given since it’s in my name. I didn’t think they had reservists in the Marines, but they did and that was it for me.”
Marinelarena put a hold on his academic career to go to recruit training and immediately after he attended the School of Infantry.
“It went kind of fast for me. One day, I was graduating from SOI and the next day I was in classes again at the university,” Marinelarena said. “It was a big change to go from that environment (recruit training) back into the real world.”
When he returned to school, he expected to be looked at differently, especially at a traditionally liberal university.
“I was surprised when I returned. People came up to me and thanked me for being the one who stands up for their country,” said Marinelarena. “My professors were very understanding when I had to go to drill,” he added.
According to Marinelarena, the community was very supportive of his decision to be a Marine.
“When I deployed for the first time, people showed up outside my house and cheered for me. It was overwhelming and very humbling.”
His support network with both school and the Marine Corp enabled him to graduate in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in government and a discipline in international relations. Knowledge he is finding useful on the streets of Iraq.
“It really helps to understand the local people better,” he explained. “I try to learn as many phrases and customs as I can before we go out on patrol.”
Another reason he realizes culture is so important is because he is the first generation of his family to be born in America.
“My dad is from Mexico and my mom is from Columbia. They immigrated to America where they met before I was born,” Marinelarena said. “They were very scared for me since I’m also the first in my family to be in any branch of military. But, I know it’s my duty to go where my country sends me.”
Even though Marinelarena has an Ivy League education, he says it is really your personal drive and support network that enable one to succeed.
“It really doesn’t matter, your background, it really depends on your heart,” he explained. “I know I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things I dreamed of if it weren’t for my family, friends and loved ones. Because in the end, no matter who you are or where you come from, with [family] support you can do anything.”