Through his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included two tours of duty in Iraq, Tony Wan faced and conquered challenges many of his York College classmates have never experienced.
But on Friday, the 25-year-old valedictorian told the class of 2012 how similar the difficulties of combat and college could be, and how appreciative he was to be able to make it through one and then the other.
At 1,003 graduates, the class of 2012 was York’s largest graduating class to date.
Wan, who put his college dreams on hold for four years after graduating from Cardozo High School, told his classmates how after 13 weeks of boot camp, he endured the Marine Corps’ rite of passage known as the Crucible.
As he carried 40 pounds of gear over 48 miles of terrain through 54 hours of combat exercises, Wan’s eyes watered from smoke, his ears rang from explosions and his nose closed from the acrid smell of gunpowder that surrounded him. The food and sleep depravation he experienced during this test, he said, was not unlike that he would go through during late nights studying for his exams.
From boot camp he left for his first tour of duty in Iraq, where, on one occasion, his best friend died when their convoy struck a roadside bomb.
“That’s not something you get over, not easily, if ever,” he said.
Wan rose to the rank of corporal, and on his second tour of duty he became team leader and would ride in the lead truck. Whenever he felt the convoy could be riding into danger, Wan would jump down, get down on his hands and knees alone and search for suspicious materials.
“Are you ... nuts?” one of his professors asked rhetorically one time, to which Wan responded, “It was the only way I knew at the time.”
“So when I came to York, how would the challenges measure up to the challenges of being a marine?” Wan asked the thousands of classmates who had gathered under the tent on York’s athletic field. After a pause, he said, “The same — that’s how.”
Wan said the physical duress and confusion he underwent on the way to his 3.99 grade-point average paralleled what he felt in Iraq. The only difference was he did not have a full-time job on top of his military responsibilities.
“The fear of not knowing whether or not you can continue college while working a full-time job just to take care of your family” was something, he said, many of his classmates shared in common.
Wan said surviving Iraq and graduating college were not, in and of themselves, his real achievements, but merely the signs of the real achievements.
“The real achievement, in the face of our challenges, we find ourselves, I mean what we have inside ... that and nothing less than that is the real achievement, knowing who you are deep down inside,” he said, and thanked his family and professors for helping him along the way.
“And thank you, classmates, who competed in and completed this boot camp with me,” he said, his voice becoming measured and deliberate. “Thank you all for just making it here. You don’t know how truly happy and grateful I am to see every single one of you here today.”
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@
©2012 Community News Group
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