First-generation student and veteran David Garcia will graduate from Georgia State this May with a Master of Public Administration degree from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. David’s journey at Georgia State began a little later in life, after he had already traveled the world and served in multiple roles for the military, the State Department, and private contractors.

“I always wanted to go to school at Georgia State when I was younger,” he says. “When I was a kid, we used to drive through here and I loved the downtown area,” he says. “I always thought it would be a great place to go to school.”

But instead of transitioning to college right after his graduation from Marietta High School in 2001, David joined the Marine Corps.

“I found myself in a recruiter’s office instead of a college admissions office… but it worked out for me. I think it was a really great decision,” he explains.

An Education Abroad

The timing of his decision coincided with a significant moment in American history.

“September 11th happened and I still went away… No one knew what was going to happen… I ended up spending the next six years in the Marine Corps,” he says.

Serving in the military didn’t stop David from continuing his education. He completed classes here and there, as he moved from base to base. Bit by bit, he was able to finish his associate’s and bachelor’s degree.

“I traveled all over the world… [and] I was actually in school the entire time. I attended several different schools along the way and I ended up with an associate’s degree by the time I got out of the military in 2007. Because I was stationed overseas, I couldn’t attend any U.S. brick-and-mortar schools so I completed my bachelor’s degree online through American Military University,” he explains.

He finished his bachelor’s degree in political science from AMU while working as a contractor for the U.S. State Department, a position he held for four years following his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.

Coming Home to Georgia

In 2011, David finally arrived at Georgia State. He was already living in Atlanta at that point and decided it made sense to stay in the city and enroll in Georgia State’s MPA program, which boasts a top 30 nationally ranked public affairs curriculum and stands in the top 15 for public finance, urban policy and nonprofit management.

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“I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out. I don’t think I’d change anything,” he says.

“While in grad school, I’ve been pretty busy with not just my studies but also with extra-curricular activities,” he says.

David is completing two internships this semester. The first is with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, where he works with the Director of Military Affairs, who advises the board on matters relating to student-veterans. He’s also interning at Meals on Wheels, which provides hot meals and companionship to seniors in need.

In addition to these internships, David serves as the special events chair for the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance. He’s also previously served as the vice president of the Georgia State chapter of the Student Veterans Association and worked as a student assistant in the Military Outreach Center on campus.

Helping Other Student Veterans

While serving with the Student Veterans Association, he drafted an important proposal designed to improve the registration experience for student veterans.

“The biggest thing I’ve accomplished while there was putting together a priority registration proposal for student veterans, which was approved,” he says. “It hasn’t been implemented yet, but in the near future every student veteran here at Georgia State will be afforded priority registration.”

The impact of this will be far-reaching. David’s bill will address the problem of limited available seats for student veterans using the G.I. Bill.

“The G.I. Bill is time-limited, so when students can’t get into the classes they need, they end up wasting their benefits on classes that don’t count toward their degrees,” he explains.

“Almost everyone I’ve served with has at least a bachelor’s because of the G.I. Bill,” he continues. “The post-9/11 federal G.I. Bill pays for everything; it covers full tuition at any in-state school and provides a small living stipend.”

Finding His Way

As the child of two El Salvadorian immigrants, his educational accomplishments have big implications for his family. His parents live in Marietta, Ga. with his older brother.

“I think my parents are definitely proud of me especially because I’m graduating debt-free… I think they’re proud I did it on my own,” he says. “Out of all of my family members in the U.S., I’m the only one with a graduate degree.”

Like some other first-generation students, David has also had to navigate an experiential gap that emerged between his family and himself as he pursued more advanced degrees.

“Sometimes I think it may be a barrier because I think it’s a little hard to engage with my family because they haven’t gone through the same experiences that I have [as a college student]… Sometimes certain conversations are a little bit difficult to navigate with them,” he explains.

David’s perseverance was also tested because of obstacles his parents faced on their path to citizenship. His parents came to the U.S. as illegal immigrants and received amnesty when he was eight or nine years old.

“They didn’t speak English when I was growing up and to this day I only speak in Spanish with them. I don’t think they knew a lot about the educational system in America. I imagine they were also a little afraid of navigating the public education system because they were illegal immigrants,” he explains.

Happy with His Choices, David Looks to the Future

Today, while David identifies as a student veteran as much as he does as a first-generation student, he still appreciates the diversity offered by the university and believes he would have found his footing had he enrolled right after high school.

“I imagine if I had gone to college right after high school, I think I would have probably been fine… There’s such diversity at Georgia State and there are a lot of first-generation students here. I’m sure I would have found my way to success,” he reflects. “As a graduate student here, I’ve been pretty content with everything.”

David’s future plans don’t involve rejoining the military or returning to the State Department.

“I don’t think I want to move around a lot… I’d like to stay in one place instead of having to move around every one to three years,” he says.

Even though he doesn’t have plans to return to military life, David’s peers in the Marine Corps, many of whom he stays in touch with through social media, have provided an ongoing source of support for him. His advice to other students, especially younger first-generation students, is to find similar sources of support.

“Probably the most important thing for a young student is a strong support network… Especially for a student who is new to a university environment and hasn’t been getting direction from parents or family,” he says.