Coming Home: Harlem Native Returns from Marine Corps to Campus

May 09, 2016

Marcos Rocha, Jr., grew up in Spanish Harlem, but went halfway around the world with the Marines before he got to the University. Over the past several years, the son of El Salvadoran and Brazilian immigrants has done a combat deployment in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. It was during those tours of duty that Rocha saw the serious psychological issues faced by returning servicemen and women. The realization led him to apply to the Columbia School of General Studies, which was founded in 1947 to accommodate non-traditional students, such as GIs returning from World War II. Today, Rocha is among 570 post-9/11 veterans enrolled at Columbia, 450 of them at General Studies.

Q. What was your journey to Columbia?

A. When I was on my third combat deployment, I decided to apply to medical school. Columbia was on the top of my list, although at the time I would never have fathomed I would be accepted. I graduated from a community college with a 3.94 GPA prior to my last deployment, so maybe I should have been more optimistic. A week before I was to reenlist in the Marine Corps, I received an email that I was accepted to all the schools I applied to, including Columbia. I appreciate how the School of General Studies guided me through the admissions process from beginning to end. I graduated in January.

Q. Why pursue a career in the sciences?

A. Since I was a young boy, I’ve dreamed about practicing medicine. From playing with microscopes and visiting the planetarium, to winning the New York City Science Fair in the fifth grade, science continues to fascinate me. While on active duty in the Marine Corps, I applied to volunteer at Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, N.C., but at the time no physicians were looking for an intern and I was told to come back in a week. I returned every week for two and a half months until finally the chief of surgery answered my calls and invited me to come in and watch him work.

Q. Is there a professor or course that inspired you in unexpected ways?

A. In the fall of 2014, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be in Professor Geraldine Downey’s “Children at Risk” seminar. For my research paper in the course, I studied the juvenile justice system, with a focus on children being tried as adults in New York City. She subsequently invited me to be part of her Social Relations Lab in the Department of Psychology as a research assistant. My work at the Center for Justice, which she co-directs, led me to help produce programs for incarcerated youth at Rikers Island Prison that include developing music, learning coding, and making business proposals.

Q. Is there something that defined your time at Columbia?

A. I was honored to become the George Van Amson fellow last summer with the Community Impact program. My goal through the fellowship has been to link youths coming home from incarceration to resources here at Columbia.

Programs offered through Community Impact include GED courses and preparation, tutoring and resume-building workshops.

At the end of my fellowship, I became co-president of a student initiative called Project Identity, where we bring youths affected by the criminal justice system or in foster care into the very classrooms where we at Columbia sit in and learn. I tell all of my youths that their reach exceeds their grasp and that while I believe in them, now it is time for them to believe in themselves

Q. What are your plans?

A. My aspirations have been to enter the world of psychiatry, and I am now in the Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program at Columbia’s School of General Studies.

Throughout my military deployments, I began to notice changes in the behaviors of those around me. Having an unstable support system back home was a common problem adding to the stresses and anxieties of servicemen and servicewomen. The return home was even more challenging, and there were numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries among those I served with. I asked myself, “How could I help them recover and integrate back into society?”

—By Gary Shapiro