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Craving a life serving others, Marine Corps veteran embraces a ‘Semper Gumby’ mindset

Says ASU’s military-connected community helped prepare him for a career transition

A man wearing a graduation stole sits on steps next to his dog

U.S. Marine Corps veteran and ASU College of Integrative Sciences and Arts graduate Jonattan Robles (pictured with his dog, Apollo) looks forward to continuing his service to the military-affiliated community. Courtesy photo

May 09, 2024

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jonattan Robles, a spring 2024 graduate of Arizona State University's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said his ASU journey was set in motion in March 2021, when a deployment with the veteran-led humanitarian organization Team Rubicon changed his life direction.

The mission of this volunteer deployment was to assist in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the Navajo Nation.

“This was a cause that was very near to my heart,” explained Robles, “as I had come very close to losing my mother to COVID-19 in the months prior.”

Twice during her weeks of hospitalization, he and his siblings were allowed to break quarantine to visit her, “because the expectation was that she could pass away at any moment,” said Robles. “Eventually, she came through it, but what followed was many arduous months of difficult and painful recovery.  

“Around this time, I had also heard how devastating COVID-19 was to the Native American communities in the Southwest, so when I got the call from Team Rubicon that they needed people to deploy to the Navajo Nation to assist in the vaccine rollout, I did not hesitate and immediately got my go bag ready.”

During that deployment, Robles said he spoke to dozens of people “about their stories, their experiences with the virus, their struggles and, most importantly, their resilience.”

Those conversations led to his realization that he wanted a career change.

“I didn’t hate the career I had built up to that point in my life,” explained Robles, who — after serving more than seven years in the armed forces as a Marine helicopter and diesel engine mechanic — was working as a natural gas service technician in California, “however, I knew that if I could find a way to have my work better serve people in need, I’d be able to build a more fulfilling life.”  

He transferred to ASU in fall 2021, determined to build on the Associate of Arts he’d earned at East Los Angeles College, and chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in communication at the ASU Polytechnic campus, in CISA’s School of Applied Sciences and Arts. However, he struggled with academics his first two semesters.

“My mother’s recovery was not yet complete. She still needed full-time care that my sister and I would split, so I was often gone,” shared Robles. “Nobody warns you how taxing taking care of a sick loved one can be on your own mental health,” he added. “Once my family and I were back in good health, I was able to prioritize my academics.”

After that, he made the Dean’s List every term from fall 2022 forward. With his academic focus back on track, he made a concerted effort to get more engaged at ASU. He joined the Polytechnic campus Student Veterans Club, the Poly Photography Club, as well as the university’s Student Veterans of America Chapter, and was one of four students to represent the chapter at the 2024 SVA National Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I began showing up to more events put on by the Pat Tillman Veterans Center (PTVC) and other various veteran organizations,” he continued. “It was there that I met some of the most supportive, encouraging, and kindest people in my life. The value they have brought to my life is something I don’t have the vocabulary to even begin to put into words,” Robles said. “They have created the space I needed to prioritize my physical and mental well-being so that I can achieve my academic goals.”

Lifted up by the supportive community he’d established for himself by reaching out to make connections, he then felt it was time to become a servant leader to the veteran and military-connected community at ASU.

He applied for and started working in the role of veteran military career peer in ASU Career Services.

“I have had the privilege of helping student veterans get connected with the resources they need to succeed," said Robles. "Whether it is helping with their resumes, finding an internship, preparing for an interview, or any of the other services we can assist them with, it has been so rewarding to be able to give back, to honor the people who have made my experience at ASU some of the happiest times in my life.

“I show up to nearly all PTVC events; I promote them as much as I can; and I strive to grow the community by inviting every veteran or military-connected student I can to the events. I know my presence and involvement at the PTVC have made a difference, because I am seeing the community grow. I am seeing new faces. I’m seeing people I invited to events bring other veterans, which makes me so happy.”

If Robles’ plans to begin an ASU master’s program go as expected, he will serve as president of the Student Veterans of America Chapter at ASU in the fall.  

“Above all, I want to continue to be part of the dynamic support system for the student veteran community at ASU,” he emphasized. “I hope that by leveraging my own experiences, I can forge a clear and supportive path for future veterans embarking on their college education as they transition out of the military or make a career change later in life.”

In the below Q&A, Robles expands on his ASU experience and advice he has for students.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field(s) you majored in?

Answer: My "aha" moment came when I started my work-study job at ASU Career Services. In that first appointment with that veteran student, I got to help him navigate the various resources available and provided him with multiple tools to land a dream job. I realized that I do great in one-on-one interpersonal communication when I get to coach and guide people in understanding the benefits available to them. I had been in roles similar to that as a union representative in my previous employment, but the extent I got to experience that was limited. Being in this new role opened my eyes to the possibility of putting this communications degree to a very rewarding use in fields like human resources, especially in something like benefits, career advising in academia, or even getting to continue to serve the veteran community that I love so much, helping them navigate the VA system.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center. I knew that coming to a new city to make a career change was not going to be an easy task; therefore, I wanted to set myself up for success as much as possible. I chose ASU because I wanted to attend a military-friendly university that would not only provide me with the resources I needed to use my GI Bill, but also prioritized community-building among the student veteran population. The bonds and friendships I made at PTVC provided me with so much of the encouragement, support, and kindness I needed to navigate and thrive in this new chapter of my life.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom, lab or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Resilience — I knew resilience is key to building a happy, fulfilling life, but I had no idea just how important it is. When I was still in the Marine Corps, I was taught a phrase that has been with me ’till this day, and that is "Semper Gumby." It's a play on words that combines the Marine Corps' motto “Semper Fidelis” with Gumby, the clay figurine from the vintage children's television show. It means "always flexible," and it applies to leadership, but it also applies to life in general. During the lead-up-to and during my time at ASU, there was a lot of turbulence, and that resilience, that "Semper Gumby" motto, was put to the test.

Self-doubt was always around the corner, questions of whether or not I was on the right track, if I could even do it, and there were some setbacks; but through all of that, resilience got me through it. I took it to heart, that idea of being flexible like Gumby, and the importance of bouncing back. I knew that simply because things weren't going perfectly did not mean I couldn't adapt and overcome. I learned to celebrate my victories along the way to keep me going. But most importantly, I learned to rely on my network of support at ASU. I never felt alone going through anything here because of my ASU support network, which was made up of my friends, my professors, my boss at ASU Career Services, and the PTVC staff.

Q: Were you supported by any scholarships at ASU?

A:  The Post 9/11 GI Bill funded my academic journey.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Success is not always linear; often there are zigs and zags along the way. There will be times life goes against the path you first intended, but that doesn't mean you won't achieve your goals.

Be resilient, be determined, but never force it to the point you start doing damage to yourself. Encouragement, support, and kindness will get you to the goal line. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to be your best version, people who support you with the resources you'll need along the way, and be kind to yourself so that you can bounce back whenever life challenges your plans.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I would go to the Pat Tillman Veterans Center a lot, sometimes to meet up with friends, and sometimes I would go to meet new student veterans. It was also a good spot to go study. It was a very accommodating space, and I am so glad it was available.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to roll straight into a master's program starting in the fall.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would try to tackle the veteran suicide rate. Nothing breaks my heart more than to see my brothers and sisters from the armed forces struggle with mental health issues. I know that $40 million probably isn't enough to fix it; it's too complex and convoluted for a one-size-fits-all solution, but I would want to put a dent in it at least.

Some of the people I served with were the most determined and outstanding people I have met, and I know that most veterans could say the same. Therefore, it's so much more painful to see veterans take their own lives after leaving the military because they feel alone and without a real network of support. I do not want a single veteran to feel like that camaraderie was left behind when they checked out of their last unit. I would want to be a force of encouragement, support, and kindness in the veteran community, who can help struggling veterans be once again that incredible, outstanding and determined individual they were when they were in military service.

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