Iraq veteran to deliver York’s valedictorian speech

York College valedictorian Tony Wan (r.) poses with Sgt. Esteban Soza (l.) and Staff Sgt. Richard Vergara during his first tour of duty in Iraq. Photo courtesy Tony Wan
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This year’s York College valedictorian took the long road to graduating with his chemistry degree and after overcoming many challenges, he is still looking for more.

Tony Wan, 25, served two tours of duty in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, achieving the rank of corporal, before enrolling at York. The Flushing native said he decided on military service when he was a junior at Benjamin Cardozo High School.

“Seeing my family’s financial situation and I wanted to be more independent, I thought it would be the best to take care of myself financially,” he said.

After heading to the U.S. Marine Corps base in Camp Lejeune, N.C., Wan was deployed twice to Iraq, where the young man was confronted with firefights, improvised explosive devices and the death of one of his friends.

Wan said the transition back to civilian life seemed daunting at first, especially entering a collegiate setting where he feared he would not be able to relate to those around him.

“I had been hearing from a lot of friends that they were having a difficult time adjusting, like just holding back their thoughts and not screaming their heads off at fellow students or teachers,” he said.

Those fears were assuaged during one of his first visits to the college.

“While I was still in the military I came home to check out schools. I went to St. John’s and to York and when I got to York the first person I saw was Dr. [Emmanuel] Chang,” said Wan, who was interested in the college’s Physician Assistant Program. “He was doing something else and he dropped that to help me. I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

“There were a lot of different professors and students who were very open-minded. Even though they were unfamiliar with what I went through, they were willing to accept it,” he added.

After three years in college, Wan is graduating with a 3.99 grade-point average, which represents another of the veteran’s major accomplishments.

“It’s ironic. It took me three tries to pass chemistry in high school and now I will be applying to medical school after majoring in chemistry at York,” he said.

Wan, who was born in Belize to Chinese immigrants, came to the United States when he was 3. He is the first person in his family to go to college and is interested in studying neurology in order to help veterans and others who suffer from nerve damage and neurological disorders.

He will be applying to medical schools this summer and is partial to SUNY Downstate Medical and Stony Brook University.

When the valedictorian gives his speech during York’s 42nd Commencement Exercises Friday, he will impart a few words of wisdom to his 1,003 classmates, at least seven of whom are fellow veterans.

“There are bigger and better challenges coming along the way,” he will tell the class of 2012. “Those challenges will allow them to discover themselves.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 8:32 pm, May 30, 2012
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Reader feedback

LHaley says:
Wonderful story, thank you for featuring this outstanding soldier.
May 31, 2012, 2:37 pm

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