There are many incentives to join the military, and serving one’s country is always one of them.
But sometimes learning lifetime skills, traveling to exotic locations and finding a new career path are additional reasons cited by enlistees. A pair of Stony Brook students, Ivana Toic and Marquis Cunningham, enlisted in the respective military branches they chose with a combination of these factors in mind.
In the process, they not only found out who they were, but also made themselves much more educable while learning self-discipline and time management skills. By the time they enrolled at Stony Brook, they not only knew what they wanted but they possessed the drive to make it happen.
Ivana ‘ 19 was a prep cook at a restaurant in Bethpage State Park for nearly four years. Both of her parents worked full time but education was not a priority in her household. She earned poor grades in high school and in her brief stint at Nassau Community College.
Afraid to leave her job but realizing it represented a dead end, she initially considered joining the army when a recruiter called her. But she scrapped that plan and continued unhappily at that job.
That is, until, Ivana conducted some research on the navy. “I always loved the water so I figured it couldn’t be too bad,” she said. “The idea of traveling around the world and getting paid for it became very enticing to me.”
When Ivana emerged from boot camp in the spring of 2011 with a newfound belief in her abilities, she said she knew she was capable of anything. “Going into the service, my self-esteem had been extremely low and I didn’t think I could ever have the capacity to learn and become educated.”
She was also facing another challenge. “ ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ wasn’t repealed yet when I joined the Navy, and I was openly gay. But I was young and told myself, ‘whatever happens, happens,’ ’’ said Ivana.
And what happened afterwards was remarkable. Ivana reported to her first duty station in Guam and served on two submarine tenders, the USS Frank Cable and the USS Emory S. Land as a pipefitter, responsible for welding, sheet metal fabrication, carpentry, and machine maintenance, rising up the ranks to petty officer second class before receiving an honorable discharge in December 2014.
During the tour of duty Ivana embarked on missions to Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Hawaii, the Philippines, Bahrain and Portland, Oregon. While she was in the Philippines and Bahrain she had an opportunity to perform community service, spending time with children at orphanages in the Philippines and socializing with women at a battered women’s clinic in Bahrain.
But the tug to return to school never abated. “I felt uneducated when I was having conversations with people and even doing simple arithmetic seemed impossible, and I was embarrassed,” she said.
So Ivana was determined to better herself again. After leaving the Navy enrolled at Berkeley College in New York City in January 2015, attending school for 21 consecutive months and graduating with a 3.6 GPA and associates degree in business management.
But her restlessness was relentless. Always fascinated with how the human anatomy functioned, Ivana explored a career in health science and her research led her to apply to Stony Brook University, where she was accepted. Since then she has become a Human Evolutionary Biology major, which is offered jointly by the Departments of Anthropology and Ecology and Evolution. Ivana expects to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in 2019.
Ivana’s pre-calculus classmate and fellow military veteran Marquis, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and attended Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee before venturing into the service.
Marquis, 27, was an international studies major at Rhodes and earned his bachelor of arts degree in 2012.
A childhood interest in medicine, triggered by a high incidence of heart disease and diabetes in his family and community where he grew up, led him to study at Rhodes. Eventually, as part of his studies, he decided to participate in a study abroad program in Beijing, China, in fall 2010. Marquis completed a semester research project on domestic animal populations in China. He improved his linguistic skills, winning the Best in 300 Level Intensive Chinese Language award while he was overseas.
His zeal for medicine kindled by his experience with animals, Marquis wanted to expand his knowledge to their human counterparts. He next volunteered to work, during summers, at a cardiology lab at a local hospital and also as a counselor for children who received or needed organ. During the school year he shadowed various departments in the local hospital to gain experience in a variety of medical specializations. He also performed volunteer work at the Mid-South Spay and Neuter Services clinic in Memphis.
Following graduation, Marquis looked into the possibility of becoming a medic in the United States Army and learned that his academic background would allow him to enter the service at a higher rank as well as move up more quickly in the chain of command.
Marquis enlisted in the army and following 16 weeks of training in San Antonio, Texas, began a tour of duty with the Hatchet Company I-87 in Fort Drum, New York in August 2014. “Within two years I became a team leader and a senior medic within three and I was responsible for training soldiers assigned to me in emergency medical intervention,” said Marquis.
But all of his training only stoked his dream to make medicine his life and Marquis brought his military career to a close in December 2016 after being accepted into the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health Program at Stony Brook, which he embarked upon this past January.
“My New York friends said that Stony Brook University has a long history of training future doctors,” said Marquis. The Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health Program appeals to career-changers who have worked in another field or have a different degree and want to go into another aspect of medicine. The transition has been slightly easier because Stony Brook provides numerous orientation services and the professors are generally welcoming of older students.”
Marquis also said that his military skills and experience have served him well in his post-Army life. “I patch up my friends all of the time and my science classes are easier thanks to what I learned there,” he said.
Even his language skills will play a role in his future. “I plan on going into emergency medicine and working around the globe. I love people and experiencing different cultures and hope to be able to travel in Asia and work in small clinics training locals to perform simple procedures,” Marquis said. “Short term I plan to continue studying at Stony Brook and earn another 40 credits to begin the process of applying to medical school hopefully within two years.”
Pre-calculus Professor David Kahn likes what he sees in both Ivana and Marquis. “The main things that I have noticed about my students who have gone through military service is that they tend to be more diligent in their studies, comfortable asking questions and are polite and respectful. They also bring a perspective of maturity and worldliness to the class,” he said.
— Glenn Jochum