Army veteran and Cal Poly Pomona senior Jeffrey Tu says he had a difficult time re-adjusting to civilian life after spending a year in Iraq. Frustrated and bitter, he couldn’t relate to other people and they didn’t understand him. He even considered re-enlisting for another tour of duty.
However, Tu held on to a promise he made to himself during his deployment and was determined to complete his education. “If I ever make it out alive, I’ll try my best to never take anything for granted,” he says. “If Iraq couldn’t kill me, these books aren’t going to kill me either.”
School wasn’t Tu’s strongest suit during high school in Rowland Heights. He hung with the wrong crowd, joined a gang and had little direction in life. He spent two semesters at Cal State Fullerton, got on probation and eventually dropped out.
The 9/11 attacks motivated him to sign up for the military, and he hoped to make a difference in the world and a change in his own life. After Tu finished boot camp, he enrolled at Mt. SAC and tried for a fresh start.
Then in 2005, the Army informed Tu that he would soon deploy to Iraq for a year.
“I had to put school on hold, my life on hold,” he says. “When we got to Iraq, our mission was to provide convoy security. We also were tasked to quick reaction force work, which is like being the first responders to a terrorist attack. We had a pretty dangerous mission. We were always on the road. The threat of dying was always there.”
After Tu came home Christmas Eve in 2006, he returned to Mt. SAC and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in 2008 as an economics major. The military taught him discipline, organization and priorities, but school was still a challenge.
In his first quarter, Tu deliberately signed up for intermediate macroeconomic theory (EC 403), arguably one of the most difficult courses in the economics department and one that students usually put off for a couple of years.
“He tried to take the hardest class right away, even though he was advised not to,” says Professor Nestor Ruiz, who taught the course. “If you can do well in that class, you can do well in every class.”
Tu found that there is no secret to mastering a subject, other than setting aside distractions, spending time and effort, and giving full attention to his studies.
“I remember distinctly on multiple occasions during that first quarter, wondering what the heck I got myself into, because that class was indeed extremely demanding,” he says. “I wasn’t going to let the books beat me. I channeled all my frustration, all of my negative energy into studying. The books became my new enemy. That was how I forced myself to study. That was a mental trick I had to play on myself.”
Tu’s determination earned him the respect of Ruiz and other professors.
“One of the things I can say about Jeffrey is that he has commitment,” Ruiz says. “His intelligence and commitment allowed him to overcome the weaknesses that he had. He proved that he has the ability to succeed.”
Tu earned an A-minus in the course, a 3.86 Cal Poly Pomona GPA and will graduate cum laude this weekend.
Tu also credits his fresh start in civilian life to his friends in the economics club, who bring positive energy and happiness. He took a leadership role in the club, serving as a spokesman and event organizer.
“I learned that I’m pretty good at helping people,” he says. “I could be a good leader if I wanted to.”
Tu offers this advice for people who are unhappy, lack a sense of purpose and are looking for a change: “Find a positive direction, it could be any direction, and go with it. Along the way, you’ll start picking up good habits,” he says. “It’s really possible to change. If I could find the motivation to change and find confidence, then everybody can. Be committed, persistent, and never give up on yourself.”