Q&A: Bay State vet in college named one of ’29 Who Shine’
LOWELL, Mass. — Joe Assenza, 26, grew up in Sandown, N.H., served four years in the Marine Corps, and deployed twice to Iraq in 2006 and 2007. After the war, he moved to Lowell to be closer to Middlesex Community College, where he studies engineering.
Assenza was just named MCC’s student of the year. He is one of two students giving the school’s commencement address May 24, and on May10 he’ll be honored at the Statehouse as one of the “29 Who Shine,” a selection of outstanding students from each of the state’s 29 public colleges and universities.
Assenza has a full-time courseload, works as an intern at Lowell City Hall, advises MCC’s Veteran’s Resource Center and is a fellow in the Paul Sullivan Leadership Institute. He does it all despite a traumatic brain injury suffered while at war with the Marine Corps’ 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Next he plans to attend the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to continue his studies toward becoming a civil engineer.
Q. Why did you join the Marine Corps?
A. It was something I wanted to do since I was a kid. Every little kid grows up playing with G.I. Joes, I guess, and I never stopped. Being at war when I graduated high school weighed heavily on me too. My original plan was to go into the Army, until I sat down with the Marine recruiter. He just instantly changed my mind. The discipline he gave off, and the attitude and atmosphere.
Q. Did you see combat?
A. My first time I was a radio operator for my squad. The second time I was a fire team leader. We spent a lot of time walking around, foot patrols every day. I did see combat. I got involved in a couple of roadside bombs. I now have a mild traumatic brain injury from it.
“I tell every veteran I get to meet: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because I was at first, and that sucked.” — Joe Assenza
Q. Has that affected your studies?
A. Yes. I was never a good student in high school, and when I got out of the Marines I also had PTSD. My attention span went completely out the window. Anything got me really frustrated. But then I started hanging out at the tutoring center on campus. If I wasn’t working or in school, I was there getting help.
Q. How did you overcome that?
A. With a lot of help and a lot of work. My family helped me out a lot with dealing with those issues. I was living at home at first until I got on my feet. It wasn’t too bad, but it was bad enough that I needed my family’s help. It was my family and the tutoring center.
Q. What are the best resources you’ve found?
A. I tell every veteran I get to meet: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, because I was at first, and that sucked. I was trying to do everything on my own, then I found out about the tutoring center and that I could go to the VA for counseling. I always tell people go out, get the help — there’s nothing wrong with it.
Q. Do you have any advice for veterans getting ready to hit the books?
A. Just do it — follow through. A lot of my friends have kind of dabbled in it and then quit, and then tried to get back in. Education is the best thing you can possibly do as soon as you get out of the military.
Q. Did the military and war help in other ways?
A. I graduated high school with a 1.4 GPA. I now have a 3.7 GPA. They whipped me right into shape and gave me the maturity I desperately needed.
Q. How much free time do you have?
A. I don’t have a lot of free time at all. I’m at school or work from 8 to 5 every day. Then I come home and do homework. I drink a lot of coffee. Hot coffee, black. Iced coffee with cream and sugar.
Q. I read that you went to Belize to study coral reefs. What do you want to do next?
A. I just want to get my degree and become a productive member of society; that’s my next goal. I’ve always set goals: Get out of high school, go to the Marine Corps, get through boot camp, now get my degree and get that full-time adult job.
Q. Why do you want to be a civil engineer?
A. I love to be outside, and that’s one of those jobs where I can make a decent living, be outside and be in a constantly changing and dynamic field.
Contact Robert Mills at email@example.com.