Laguna Beach native Kevin Staight, who graduated from high school in 2000 with a less than stellar 2.9 GPA, a lack of direction and no college prospects, offers some hard-earned advice to this year’s graduating seniors.
“It’s not a race,” he said, urging students to remain optimistic and seize every opportunity.
His own journey from a middling high school student to graduating magna cum laude from UC San Diego on Sunday, June 12, at age 28 was a circuitous one that included two tours of active duty in Iraq.
Without any acceptances from colleges due to his poor grades nor any clear career interests, Staight joined the U.S. Marines and entered boot camp in October 2002.
A few weeks into boot camp the new recruits were informed that they would be going to Iraq. Staight’s first tour of duty as a rifleman with the First Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the United States Marine Corps, was in 2004, when he was in combat for five months in Fallujah, just after Blackwater contractors had been killed and dragged through the streets.
Staight was struck by the confusion that reigned in determining who and where the enemy was, with the conflicting reports about whether various groups were friends or foes at any given moment. And he immediately saw how communications could be improved if soldiers knew the local language and culture.
That was the start of Staight’s personal mission, one that would eventually bring him back to the Middle East as a civilian and bring his career direction into focus.
His parents described their son’s determination and perseverance from an early age. “I’ve been a lawyer for many years and haven’t won an argument with Kevin since he was 7,” said his mother Lisa.
Staight’s father, George, recalls his young son wanting a 44-pound pumpkin. “I could think of a hundred reasons why it was a bad idea, but he wanted it, so I let him buy it,” said his father, who remembered his son’s satisfaction at paying for the orb from his allowance money.
When his parents grounded the youth when they learned from his fifth-grade teacher that he was behind 142 assignments, the boy devised a schedule to catch up before year’s end by completing three assignments each weeknight and four each Saturday and Sunday. He did.
After his first tour in Iraq, Staight devised another difficult task, to begin teaching himself Arabic, learning useful phrases. On his second tour in 2005 to patrol and guard the government center in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, he became the platoon linguist, though his Arabic skills were still rudimentary. He saw the benefit of directly communicating with Iraqis to help improve their lives.
While some recent veterans have trouble returning to civilian life, Staight, after completing his military service, made it his mission to return to the Middle East and become an agent of change for the future. “I want to get to the level where I can really make a difference,” he said.
His parents both conceded that optimism runs in the family. “When he set his heart on something he wanted, he would do those things that he needed to do to get it,” said his father.
Service to his country notwithstanding, Staight’s high school transcript still undercut his ability to enter college. He received rejection notices from UCLA, UC Berkley and Cal State Fullerton. Ultimately, he was admitted to UC San Diego, a campus committed to educating and supporting veterans who have served their country, said vice-chancellor of student affairs Penny Rue. “Our campus benefits from having veteran students as they bring service, life experiences, diversity and leadership to our university.”
Staight did just that, vowing to never let the university regret their decision to give him a chance.
He studied linguistics to immerse himself in the Arabic culture and economics to hone his business development skills. After a year abroad at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and another at the University of Damascus in Syria, Staight is nearly fluent in Arabic and well-versed in the regional culture. In August, he’ll head to New York University, where he’s been accepted to the Stern School of Business master’s program.
At his commencement last Sunday, Staight, the only student to receive three honors, accepted the Ann Craig Award for Scholarship, Leadership and Service; the Global Service Award; and the Economics department’s Joel Dean Award for Excellence in Management Science. He was also one of seven students highlighted in an article entitled, “Outstanding Graduates Prepare for New Challenges,” published on June 6 on UCSD’s online news site.
“I’m really excited for what comes next!”