For 12 years, Justin Rodriguez lived by the motto “Semper Fidelis” — always faithful.
In the Marine Corps, it helped him get through military exercises in triple-digit temperatures and an eight-month deployment to Iraq. That same commitment to mission is on display today as Rodriguez turns the tassel at East Carolina University.
The 38-year-old Kansas native is a magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor’s of science in university studies. More than a decade after he began his undergraduate degree, his story is one of endurance.
“Once I started it, I knew I’d eventually finish it,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “ If someone would have said 12 years, maybe I would have hesitated, but I think I would have done it anyway.”
Marines are trained to adapt and improvise to overcome obstacles. This is a philosophy that served Rodriguez well as he continued to pursue his degree through full-time military service, cross-country moves and the births of two children.
“This gentleman has been working on completing his undergraduate degree for 12 plus years and never gave up despite the odds,” Director of University Studies Amy Shannon said. “To me it’s very inspiring.”
Growing up in Topeka, Rodriguez had little encouragement to consider college. His father had attended but had not completed his degree, and the grandparents who raised him were on a fixed income. From an early age, Rodriguez understood that unless he received a scholarship, college would not be the next stop after high school, so he never even took the SAT or ACT.
Instead, he took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and joined the Marine Corps a year after graduation. He was stationed in Jacksonville, where he met his wife, Ashley, then a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
When Rodriguez moved to his second tour duty station in Pensacola, Fla., he decided to begin pursuing his degree, so he applied for active duty tuition assistance to enroll in online classes with American Military University. He took a few classes each semester, chipping away at his goal. After he was reassigned to Southern California, Rodriguez took a short break from his studies while Ashley completed her master’s thesis. Then it was back to the books.
His persistence had little to do with advancing his career. Rodriguez had risen to the rank of gunnery sergeant and planned to remain in the military until his retirement. The desire for a degree was characteristic of another Marines mantra, “Ductus Exemplo,” which is Latin for “lead by example.”
Their oldest daughter remembered seeing her mother walk across the stage to receive her master’s degree, even though the girl was only a preschooler at the time. Rodriguez wanted his determination to achieve to have a similar effect on Avery, now 12, and her sister, Jane, 9.
“I didn’t wat to become the excuse for my daughters saying, “I don’t need to go to school,’” he said. “I said, ‘If nothing else, I’ll go and I’ll finish my degree to say that I finished my degree.’ They can watch me walk across the stage. At least I’ll have set a good example.”
In 2012, Rodriguez gained an additional motivation for completing his degree. While on duty, he suffered a knee injury that put him in bed for six weeks. Despite surgery and extensive rehabilitation, it never healed, ending Rodriguez’s military career.
Moving the family to North Carolina to be closer to Ashley’s relatives, Rodriguez used the GI Bill earned educational benefits to begin taking courses in online at Lenoir Community College with a goal of becoming a teacher. After securing a civilian job at Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, he enrolled at ECU in the fall of 2015.
Although he was technically a distance education student, Rodriguez took advantage to his newfound proximity to a university he attended. He came to campus to study at Joyner Library and sometimes to arrange face-to-face meetings with professors who taught his online classes.
“I got to do that, whereas most distance students don’t,” Rodriguez said. “I still got that college feel, that college experience, a little bit anyway.”
While Rodriguez performed well academically, the shift work his job required made it challenging to do the classroom observations that are part of education degree. He managed but realized that student teaching would be impossible.
“Once you get to your senior year, that’s when they expect you to quit your job altogether and spend an entire semester in the classroom,” Rodriguez said. “Once you’re an adult and you have kids and a mortgage, it’s like I can’t quit my job for six months. I can’t tell the bank that I’m going to miss six mortgage payments so I can go to school. It doesn’t work like that.”
Though he was nearing the completion of his degree, Rodriguez withdrew from the elementary education program in the fall of 2016. He knew he would have to change majors to graduate but didn’t want to have to lose credits and practically start over in another program.
A degree in university studies seemed like an answer to his dilemma. The program is designed to help students who have a significant number of course credits already to structure a plan for completing a bachelor’s degree. Since 2014, more than 900 students — 46 percent of whom are older than 25 — have received university studies degrees.
Shannon said the program is intended for students like Rodriguez who have hit a roadblock after completing much of the coursework in a traditional program. Many of those enrolled are distance education students.
“We have a lot of students in our program that are working adults,” Shannon said. “If he can do it, other students can do it.
“You don’t have to go full time back to school,” she said. “If that means just taking one or two classes while you keep working and balance all of your responsibilities, you can do it, and he’s a good example of that.”
University studies allowed Rodriguez to design an individualized course of study specializing in education services as well as psychology (his minor). After graduation, he plans to take very little time off before beginning to pursue a graduate degree in counseling or social work.
“In many cases, the bachelor’s degree in itself isn’t necessarily telling somebody ‘This is what I know,’” Rodriguez said. “It’s telling somebody I finished this. That’s what that piece of paper represents to me.
“That degree represents you started something, you followed through and you finished it. At least that’s what I hope to show my daughters.”