Two months after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines, Leonel Gonzalez enrolled at College of the Canyons with the goal of becoming a psychologist.
The first semester is stressful for any freshman student, but for Gonzalez, who was still transitioning to his new life as a civilian, adapting to the demands and deadlines of college life was overwhelming.
Gonzalez reached his breaking point two months into the fall semester while sitting at a computer in his statistics class.
“I thought, ‘I’m done with this,’” said Gonzalez, who lives in Newhall. “I dropped my classes right then and there and left in the middle of class.”
But dropping out made him feel even worse.
“It hit me really hard because I felt like I was a failure,” said Gonzalez. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life outside of the military if I couldn’t handle school.”
Determined to succeed, Gonzalez returned to COC during the winter 2017 session.
“I just said to myself, ‘I’m just going to go and if I fail, I at least attempted it,’” said Gonzalez. “So, if I get an F, I’m going to get an F.”
With the help of his mother and father, professors, and the college’s Veterans Resource Center, Gonzalez has done a 180-degree turn.
Currently boasting a 3.9 GPA, Gonzalez will be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college when he receives his COC diploma on June 1.
Gonzalez, who is transferring to California State University, Northridge in the fall to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, never considered pursuing higher education after his rocky path to graduation at Hart High School.
“I didn’t even dream of it,” said Gonzalez. “My grades weren’t even close to what I have now. My time in college is the peak of my education so far. I’ve only had one B so far.”
However, his time at COC was also punctuated by personal setbacks, such as the hospitalization of both his parents and the loss of a veteran friend to suicide.
Gonzalez credits his success to his mentors and professors at COC, who were willing to work with him during those difficult times.
One of those professors was Michelle LaBrie.
“When I first met Leo, he was a bit lost and struggling, but I could tell that he is someone with really big dreams,” said LaBrie, who teaches psychology at the college. “I invited him for an office hour and we talked about his challenges, goals and his desire to pursue psychology as a major.”
Over time, LaBrie watched his confidence grow as he embraced the academic culture.
“He has worked very hard to achieve all that he has and has every reason to be proud of his accomplishments,” said LaBrie.
At the Veterans Resource Center, Gonzalez relied on the guidance and support of director Renard Thomas, who encouraged him to apply for scholarships. As a result, Gonzalez was awarded the COC Veteran Excellence Award and the Santa Clarita Valley Warrior Scholarship.
“I was impressed with how he followed all the direction and information he received from our office and developed strong study skills for his courses,” said Thomas. “He frequently visited the Veteran Resource Center, where he would sometimes do homework, socialize, ask questions to the staff and offer encouragement to other veterans.”
Gonzalez, who recently started working as a behavioral therapist for autistic individuals, says he will miss COC’s beautiful campus, but most of all, he will miss the people.
“I am grateful for the network I have created here and hopefully I create a good network when I go to CSUN,” said Gonzalez.