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Student Veteran Finds New Avenue for Serving
Thurgood Marshall senior now president of campus Student Veteran Organization

Christine Clark | Oct. 12, 2009

(Photo / Christine Clark)
SVO President Justice Castaneda (left) stands with Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Penny Rue, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Admissions Mae Brown, and Associate Director of Financial Aid Vonda Garcia.

Justice Castaneda was 20 years old when he went to a military recruiting office. At the time, he had been involved in drugs and seen many of his close friends go off to prison.

“I knew I had to get out,” he said. “I was making bad decisions, hanging out with a bad group. I was sitting inside of my friend’s car who was driving without a license when I saw the Military Recruiting Office — I knew that was where my future was headed.”

Castaneda has come a long way since then. Now a senior at Thurgood Marshall College, the 29-year-old serves as the president of the university’s Student Veteran Organization (SVO), where he’s collaborated with staff on creating events and developing initiatives that help support the campus’ 200 undergraduate students who have served in the military. The honor student also volunteers as a tutor and mentor to underprivileged youths at a local high school.

“Castaneda brings to the SVO an unmatched enthusiasm to help support student veterans and all students,” said Timothy Borch, assistant director of transfer student services. Borch also is a member of the UC-wide and UC San Diego Veterans Services Workgroup, which addresses the needs of student veterans.  “We’re lucky to have him and we really appreciate all the work he’s doing to help support our efforts.” 

Castaneda grew up in a working class neighborhood in Madison, Wis. and got into the Marines “by the skin of his teeth,” he said. “I knew if I couldn’t make it in the Marines, I couldn’t make it anywhere,” he said. Castaneda spent the first year in sobriety, working as an information analyst, but quickly rose up the ranks to Sergeant in two years, and was promoted to Staff Sergeant three years later.

In 2004, Castaneda was deployed to Iraq, where he worked as a security team leader in the village of Fallujah. “I feel lucky,” he said. “Sometimes I feel guilty because my deployment wasn’t as bad as others. I had friends who had much more tumultuous deployments than I did.”

Castaneda described the armed conflict in Iraq as chaotic. “It’s not as organized as you think,” he said. “There is no plan, just survive.”

He applied and was accepted to several UC campuses but chose UC San Diego, which was recently name a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine. Castaneda was attracted to UCSD’s location, and he was especially interested in the university’s interdisciplinary Urban Studies and Planning program. “I love it here, there is no other place I would rather be,” he said. “I have such a myriad of professors, I’ve been taught by sociologists, architects and political scientists. I love being enveloped in this culture.”

Castaneda had been out of the military for less than a month when he started attending UCSD. He soon he got involved in the Student Veteran Organization and was elected president of the organization last spring. “I had this kinetic energy when I got here,” he said. “I see the vets on this campus and a lot of us have the same views. As former public servants, all of us understand the importance and value of providing a service to benefit a greater good and we want to give back to the campus community.”

Castaneda is continuing to organize campus events this year that will recognize students who have served in the military. For example, last year the SVO was instrumental in planning Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and individual service celebrations. The student organization also has collaborated with multiple departments to host special events and bring guest lecturers to the campus.

Most recently, Castaneda addressed new student veterans at the veteran orientation on Sept. 28. The orientation is one of the new initiatives that were implemented last year to support student veterans. Others include early enrollment privileges, and outreach efforts to local community colleges and military bases.

The orientation featured guest speakers from student affairs, financial aid and counseling and psychological services. At the event, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Penny Rue thanked the students for their service and for choosing UC San Diego.

“I am so pleased you chose UC San Diego,” Rue said. “My husband returned to college after he served in the military and he was amazed at how much of a better student he was. Part of the reason was because he received support from his fellow vets. No one is expected to thrive here alone and the Student Veteran Organization here will be the backbone of your experience at UCSD.”

The attendees were given special instructions from financial aid officers on how to receive their Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) benefits and were encouraged to apply for financial aid.

“There is a lot of work being done by people like Penny Rue, and people in Financial Aid to make sure this is an environment where you succeed,” Castaneda said to the group.

Castaneda also mentioned that, with the support from staff in Student Affairs, he and his fellow vets successfully campaigned with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to receive veteran’s benefits for getting a double major and/or minor. 

“As veterans, we’re dedicated students,” he said. “We’re older, we know what we want and we want to give back. We learned a lot from serving in the military.  Now it’s our time to engage with the campus community and our fellow students.”

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