At the University of Southern California today 14,000 people receive their graduate and undergraduate degrees, and 174 of them will get diplomas after serving in the U.S. military.
Karla Leyva is one of them. She remembers the mad scramble to pick up her cap, gown and tassel at the USC bookstore a few weeks ago.
“It stayed in the bag for about a day,” she said. But when she removed it, memories tumbled out, too.
“The fact that, you know, it’s been five years in the making of my degree for me," she says. "To come to this point where all my hard work paying off is just such a rewarding feeling."
It’s been ten years since Leyva, the daughter of immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, graduated from Gardena High School. She’ll be the first in her family to graduate from college. Along the way to that achievement, she decided — a year after her high school graduation, a semester into community college, and while the wounds of 9/11 were still raw — to enlist in the Army.
“I learned a lot about myself," Leyva says of her time in the Army. "I matured as an independent woman, learned to really appreciate the little things that I had taken for granted before."
Like her family’s support for her enlistment and her mother’s home cooking.
Leyva served four years in a unit that supplied U.S. military operations in Iraq with items from paper clips to military vehicles. But she was never far from combat.
“Our first deployment we received a lot of mortar attacks on base,” Leyva recalls. "So that was stressful."
During watch duty in a tower on her base, Iraqi men, women and children passed by. Leyva recalls seeing a little girl who couldn’t have been more than seven years old.
“She was in charge of walking the two skinny cows they had and a herd of sheep, along with her little sibling, little brother, that was about three,” she said.
That made her grateful for a childhood that allowed her to be a kid, without the turmoil that surrounded this girl.
When Leyva returned home, she enrolled at Cerritos College to resume her studies. There she met military combat veterans who had trouble adapting to civilian life.
Leyva knew some who would sit at the back of the classroom so they could keep everyone and everything in their sights, as they had as soldiers.
“You have to learn how to let yourself know [...] that you’re not in that environment anymore," she says. "You’re not in the military anymore so you can let that guard down and you’re safe at home."
She started a veterans’ support group at Cerritos — and found support for herself from a counselor. That, along with an accounting professor’s enthusiasm, helped Karla Leyva envision new career opportunities.
“As little girl I would think of myself in a big office building, working in L.A., and the excitement that that brings,” she said.
Now that she’s earned her bachelor’s degree from USC, accounting firm KPMG has offered the 27-year-old a full-time job starting in August.