Capt. Moises A. Ochoa’s first experience at Arizona State University ended with him dropping out in 2003.
“I was very happy (at ASU); I made a lot of new friends but I wasn’t in the right state of mind during that year. I had a lot of conflicting priorities: family, a job, full-time school, a relationship and during that time I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Ochoa said. “When you have so many priorities, something is going to fail. And it was school that failed. I dropped out of school with a .17 GPA. I failed all my classes except for a pass/fail class.”
But Ochoa’s story is not one of failure; it’s one of second chances and seizing opportunities.
Around the time Ochoa dropped out, the U.S. invaded Iraq. Ochoa said the technology advancement that allowed for real-time war updates and live streams, combined with the emotions of the 9/11 attacks, had a strong impact on him. He thought about what he wanted to do with his life and decided to join the Marine Corps — where he would remain for five years.
“It got me to experience the world — which as a kid from central Phoenix, I never thought I’d experience. It got me to experience new people from a whole spectrum of the United States. It gave me the outlet I needed to develop myself as a follower, which helped me evolve to a leader, something I never thought I’d be able to do,” he said.
After leaving the Marines, Ochoa and his wife moved back to Phoenix, they bought a house, and he found a job opportunity. Then the economy crashed and he was laid off. Around this time, the Post-9/11 GI Bill kicked in, which offered financial support for tuition and books. Ochoa described the opportunity as incredible.
“I went back to ASU and ASU was like, ‘Well, you left with a really bad GPA.’ And I was like, ‘Agreed, I did.’”
His adviser at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offered him a chance to redeem his GPA since he had been gone for a number of years. He would have to select a degree that didn’t require a minimum GPA and demonstrate his academic potential by taking 12 credit hours and meeting at least a 2.5 semester GPA.
“I decided to pursue a political science degree and when I entered ASU, I treated it like a full-time job,” he said.
As he returned to campus with a new mindset, he also took in his surroundings. He saw students walking around campus in their military uniforms and inquired with an Army ROTC recruiter.
“I think with a lot of veterans when they get out, they lose a sense of service. We love that sense of service; being something bigger than our self,” he said.
The ROTC recruiter told him he couldn’t enroll yet due to his low GPA.
So, Ochoa focused on his classes. In his first semester back, he achieved a 4.0, and then again in his second semester.
After two years of taking no less than 18 credit hours a semester, Ochoa graduated with a degree in political science and a GPA of 3.99, and was commissioned as a chemical officer.
Since his graduation in 2011, Ochoa has obtained his first master’s degree in international security studies from the University of Arizona and is now working on his second, a master’s from Columbia University in social-organizational psychology. When he completes that program in a year, he says he is set to mentor cadets at West Point.
He credits ASU with helping him achieve his accomplishments.
“Sometimes schools, like in high school, will have counselors look at you and peg you to a particular sector. Looking back to when I was in high school to now, I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know if it’s luck, if it’s pure determination or if it’s been just fortunate events and being in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude. But I don’t take anything for granted. I think it has to do with the day I lost my job and Arizona State giving me a second chance. That’s the only reason I’m here.”
In his role commanding and mentoring soldiers, Ochoa often advises individuals who are debating whether they want to go to school to check out ASUx, ASU’s partnership with EDX.
“I tell them, ‘Arizona State offers free classes and if you feel comfortable and want to do it, you pay for the tuition and you get the grades. But if you don’t do so well, you got a feel for the school.’ I always motivate my students to get an education.”
Ochoa said his liberal arts education helped him succeed as a company commander.
“Something I learned from political science and Arizona State is a lot of conflict happens because of insecurity," Ochoa said. "Arizona State really helped me be able to talk to people and not make hasty judgments or have a preconceived conception of a group or sector of society. That environment ASU offers definitely helped me as a company commander to help manage conflict and different perspectives.”
According to Ochoa, he was one of the first commanders in Fort Hood to integrate transgender soldiers into their formation, with minimal impact. Managing conflict and giving all soldiers the same opportunity to serve and succeed was important to Ochoa.
“A lot of colleges, ASU in particular, are bringing in different people from around the world and treating people like people. As a Hispanic kid from central Phoenix, I was given a fair shake, a fair chance to prove myself worthy and that’s all I wanted in life. Through the Marine Corps, ASU, Army, they’ve all given me that. So when you have a transgender soldier wanting to be part of an organization that is not self-serving — you’re there as a public servant and there to also fight — I’ve always wanted to give everyone the opportunity to let their work speak for themselves.”
Ochoa said he found liberal arts graduates often seek to use opportunities to teach others.
“I found myself being a teacher, trying to influence my beliefs and how we should treat people to a big organization where they might be a little more closed-minded. There was conflict, without a doubt, but I had to teach my soldiers to think differently. And they also helped me to think differently as well.”
For the foreseeable future, Ochoa plans to stay in the military, saying he’ll stay until the day he doesn’t like it anymore (which he doesn’t think will be anytime soon). In his roles in the military and his future roles in civilian life, Ochoa said he’ll stick with the motto he’s had since the Marines: “I want to inspire the new soldiers and influence the old. Anywhere I go, whatever job they give me.”
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