Javier Rincon, E19, whose parents are immigrants, came to Tufts as an undergraduate after serving almost a decade in the Marines
Many students have taken unconventional paths to—and through—Tufts. In this occasional series, Tufts Now lets students tell their stories.
After eight years in the Marine Corps, Javier Rincon, E19, began college through the Tufts Resumed Education for Adult Learners (REAL) program. One of four children raised in an immigrant family in Salem, Massachusetts, college was not in the cards when he graduated from high school. But by the time he arrived at the School of Engineering, he was eager to build on the skills he’d honed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and went on to assist in the Kaplan Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which works at the forefront of innovative tissue engineering. Now, as Rincon eyes medical school, he also remembers his past.
I signed up for the Marine Corps right out of Salem High School. It was 2003 and war had just been declared with Iraq, and just about all my classmates enlisted. For me, it was mostly out of need. I was an honor student, but my parents were working two or three jobs and I don’t think we could have filled out a college application. It didn’t seem feasible.
In Iraq I was assigned to engineering—we did everything from building structures to destroying things and clearing minefields. At the time, it was a really frustrating job because a lot of the things we did could be quickly undone or blown up by the enemy combatants. But I also was trained to give medical interventions, and whenever I helped anyone, that’s when I felt, well, no one can take this away from me.
When I got out, I thought I’d like to be a doctor, but I was also approaching thirty and worried that I was getting a late start on what could be a very long education. I knew that I needed a backup plan. I decided to focus on engineering as an undergraduate. That way I could still apply to medical school, but if, for whatever reason, life happens—medical school is not guaranteed, it’s a hard path—I would still have a degree in engineering that would stand me in good stead professionally.
As an older undergraduate, it can be hard to fit into the traditional Tufts mold. I have a one-hour commute every day and many responsibilities, which included a job in the emergency room in North Shore Medical Center in Salem. But the difference balanced out. My REAL classmates, like me, bring different personal experiences to the classroom, and also we tend to be very focused. College is a deliberate choice to turn our life experiences into careers.
Over time, even as I was distancing myself from the military, I found I relied a lot on the skills that I learned in the military, specifically in trying to solve problems. The Marine Corps motto is Semper Fidelis, which means always faithful, but in reality the unofficial motto is Semper Gumby—always flexible. By taking that to heart, and applying it to whatever comes up, I’ve been able to deal with a lot of new challenges.
I’ll be taking a year off after Tufts and using that time to pay some bills; I also have a great new job at Tufts Medical Center emergency room. I’ll start applying to medical school this summer; I have no medical field in mind at this time, but I do love the emergency room.
But that’s not all I do. Recently, my sister and I started a nonprofit called the Welcome Immigrant Network, or WIN. This is a cause I feel passionate about. I was born in the Dominican Republic and came with my family to Salem, Massachusetts, when I was about nine. My father was an accountant in the Dominican Republic, and my mother a teacher. My father’s first job in this country was picking up shopping carts outside the supermarket. My sister and I saw how hard our parents worked, but they lacked the connections to move beyond an entry-level job.
We knew that immigrants like them often get bogged down in a vicious cycle of finances; they have to work two or three jobs just to feed their family. They don’t have the means or time to get whatever additional education or licensing they need to move up. Or they just don’t know the right people who can help them. We thought it would be great if we could begin by helping with basic services, such as recommending who they need to talk with and how to do that—we wanted to be a bridge to professional mentors.
When we first got the idea going, we surveyed the immigrant population on the North Shore; our forty responses spanned thirteen different countries. All had a bachelor’s degree or higher, all were underemployed, and 90 percent wanted a mentor to help them get back into their fields. These are people who have so much to give back, but so far no one had talked to them about how to go about making that happen.
We’re making headway. In April we’re participating in the North Shore Activism & Social Justice Conference, and we will be working with other groups to raise awareness about the immigrant community and their needs. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from this process is that everyone comes from a different place.
Even as an immigrant myself, everyone has a different story. My parents’ experience is just one example of how isolating the immigration process can be when you confront a language and cultural barrier. The sacrifices that are made to try to find a better way of life for you and your children—these are stories that really resonate with me, and that will continue to be important to me as I build my life after Tufts.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.