<p> Erik Morinaga <p> </p>
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Student and Alumni Stories

Erik Morinaga


Bachelor of Arts, Political Science ’16

After nearly six years in the military with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Marine Corps Sergeant Erik Morinaga decided he was finally ready to take on his most fearsome challenge: academics. After graduating from high school, Erik enlisted as soon as he could because, in his own words, “I was tired of reading books. I was hard-headed.”

During his time overseas, Erik witnessed history happening first-hand. Now as a political science major, Erik reads about his own life in textbooks. “We had a lot of problems on the ground in 2006. We couldn’t recruit who we needed because there were guys lining the streets trying to kill people who wanted to help us. Then one day 500 guys show up and say they want to be police. But now that I read the books, that was the Sunni awakening that they talk about.”

Four days before Erik was scheduled to return home from Iraq, he was shot in the jaw and had to undergo six months of reconstructive surgery, and it was an entire year and a half before he had his teeth back—which are now plated in gold with “USMC.” But you won’t ever hear Erik complain about his injury. “I got lucky with that,” he reflects calmly.

After recovering Erik decided it was time to go back overseas. “I didn’t want to quit at that point. I got an extension and went to Afghanistan as an advisor to train the Afghan army.” By the end of his time in Afghanistan, the US involvement in the Middle East had dwindled and Erik returned home. However, his time in combat-mode was far from over. Erik joined an AmeriCorps program where he fought wildfires and was able to assist with the Hotshots—a wildland firefighting crew that works with the USDA Forest Service.

After working as a firefighter and then attending Windward Community College—University of Hawaii, Erik realized that his desire to work in international relations was going to require a bachelor’s degree. “The jobs of my dreams are competitive, so I looked for the top schools in the nation, and that’s how I came across Penn.”

The formerly stubborn student is now a voracious learner, as hard working in his classes as he is as a soldier. “I now see how what I’ve learned in school will apply to my work.” However, stepping into an Ivy League education wasn’t easy. Erik was able to navigate the transition with the help of Penn’s learning resources, tutors and especially the support of the Penn Writing Center. “Now that I’ve learned how to write academically and analyze critically, it’s changed the quality of everything. This summer I applied to and earned a US Department of State Critical Language Scholarship in Indonesia, and I was offered a Defense Intelligence Agency internship. My applications are so much more successful now because my writing is better and I’m earning my degree from Penn.”

Now coming to an end of his studies, the 28-year-old Kaneohe, Hawaii native, and mixed martial arts hobbyist is looking forward to his winter and summer breaks back home. “I try to spend every day at the beach and go surfing.” He certainly deserves it. Not only has the Marine Corps veteran earned his stripes, but he’s also earned the highest honor as a student. “I’m on the dean’s list now,” he says as the letters “USMC” peek through his smile.

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