Sometimes it’s dramatic and heroic measures that go into saving a life, but sometimes it’s simply the choices one makes.
For Pedro Valles, it was his decision to alter the path he was on and join the military that saved his life and led to him graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Technology with an emphasis in homeland security this past weekend.
While a student at San Pedro High School, Valles fell into a bad crowd and was slipping in school. Aware that his behavior was destructive, he sought help from his parents.
“I told my parents, ‘Look, I’m getting in a bad mix. I need some help,’” Valles recalled.
They enrolled him at Mary Star of the Sea High School, a private Catholic school in San Pedro. But similar temptations were there as well.
“Unfortunately, at Mary Star, it was just as bad, except kids had money,” the San Pedro native attested.
Taking drastic measures to correct his situation, Valles dropped out of Mary Star and moved to Colton to live with an aunt. Interested in cars and with some experience tinkering under the hood, he enrolled in the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) located in Rancho Cucamonga, to become a certified automotive technician. But about four months into his training at UTI, his thoughts shifted to the military.
“I realized that working on cars was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to begin to use my brain to get me ahead in life instead of sweating away under the hood of a car,” he said of his decision to enlist, adding that he considers that a turning point in his life. “I needed to grow.”
A former high school football player, Valles had his sights set on following in his older brother’s footsteps and joining the Marine Corps, but an automobile accident when he was 18 left him with four damaged lumbar vertebrae. Thinking the Corps’ 91-day boot camp would be too much, Valles decided on the Air Force, which, comparatively, is known for its focus on mental conditioning.
He visited a recruiter and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery military entrance test. With a 92 percent score, his prospects for job placement in the Air Force were good. And despite his back injury, Valles retained fitness from his gridiron days and passed with flying colors from a six-week boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas. He entered the Air Force in 2002 as a second rank airman and was quickly promoted to airman first class, then to senior airman.
During his post at Edwards AFB until the end of his three-year service in 2005, he worked in weapons maintenance and as a financial manager for projects including the development of new bases.
With the demands of being active duty in the Air Force, formal education was not on his radar, and it remained so even after leaving the service. Re-entering civilian life, he worked for a several years in managerial roles at Honda dealerships in Georgia and Los Angeles. But with the threat of the L.A. dealership closing, Valles began to assess his long-term options.
He and his wife discussed the possibility of him going to college. The idea sounded promising; his military benefits would cover tuition as well as their rent. His wife was on board.
“I am very thankful to have such a supportive wife. She has supported my decision to leave work and attend school, and works extremely hard to make sure we are financially secure, which made the transition very easy,” Valles said.
As circumstance would have it, one of his sisters-in-law had applied to CSU Dominguez Hills and suggested that Valles, who was taking general education classes at Los Angeles Harbor College, should consider doing the same. The idea of attending a university began to grow in the back of his mind, but it wasn’t until he attended a cousin’s graduation at the university that CSU Dominguez Hills really formalized as an option.
“Before that I really didn’t know about Dominguez Hills,” he recalled. That year, 2010, he applied and was accepted.
Of the Air Force supporting him in turning his life around and pursuing higher education, he said, “The biggest thing in my life was going into the military. I can say that’s been my godsend.”
With an interest in computers and his desire to turn his experiences as a rebellious teen into a positive pursuit, the self-described computer—as well as car—geek, hopes to one day have a career in the computer crimes division of the Federal Government’s Drug Enforcement Administration or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“I know one person isn’t going to change the world, but I can do my part,” said Valles, who was a member of the computer science department’s cyber security club and the Veterans Alliance at CSU Dominguez Hills.
But first, he wants to wants earn a master’s degree in computer engineering. Accepted into the program at University of Southern California, Valles will start pre-requisite courses there in fall 2013.
“I never thought I could get into USC, because of my past, and USC just seemed over the top for me,” the Long Beach resident revealed. “[CSU Dominguez Hills is] getting me to USC, so I have to be very proud of what it has given to me.”
But with the same determination he demonstrated when he extracted himself from a destructive lifestyle, Valles is achieving academic success and creating new options for his future.