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In 2006, Rodrigo Garcia was lifting weights with a friend at the Northeastern gym. Garcia had just come off five years of service in the Marine Corps, during which he had three separate deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Having spent the majority of his last five years on military bases and in combat zones, Garcia was having a tough time adjusting to life at Northeastern.
“When I came in, it was a little bit of a culture shock,” Garcia said. “You go from a tight-knit community to a diffused and independent community in which the student body is very diverse. There were many occasions in which I was the only person with a military background in my class.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, one chance encounter in the Northeastern weight room would change his life forever.
Garcia’s weightlifting partner invited him to the first meeting of the Student Veterans Club. By the end of the meeting, Garcia had been named the group’s president. In five short years, he would become the Chairman of the National Board of Directors for Student Veterans of America, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. During that time, the organization grew from 22 chapters to more than 300 across the country. Today, there are more than 1,000 chapters of Student Veterans of America. Garcia helped raise awareness of the challenges student veterans face—including advocating for an overhaul of the G.I. Bill to address the needs of 21st-century veterans.
Remarkably, until 2011, all of Garcia’s aforementioned work with veterans’ affairs was done in his spare time. From 2006 to 2011, Garcia earned his B.S. in Business and Management (Finance) from Northeastern Illinois University (2007), his M.B.A. (with a concentration in finance) from the University of Illinois at Chicago (2009), worked for a year with Morgan Stanley, and spent three years with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, assessing banks for legal, financial and operational risk.
In 2011, Garcia could focus his attention full-time on veterans’ issues, as he was appointed by Governor Pat Quinn to serve as the Assistant Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He did so well in that role, that the governor appointed Garcia as the Acting Director of the agency in summer 2014. In his current role, Garcia leads a state agency with more than 1,300 staff members, a $128 million budget and more than 80 statewide offices. As if that weren’t enough responsibility, Garcia is also earning his second master’s degree—this time in public policy from Northwestern University—on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, one that he himself campaigned for in 2008.
“It’s been a great journey,” Garcia said. “And Northeastern has been an integral component of my journey. If my friend at Northeastern hadn’t invited me to the meeting of the Student Veterans Club, which got me more involved in the organization, which eventually led to my current position, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
And if it weren’t for Rodrigo Garcia and his advocacy, the educational journeys of countless veterans would be much more difficult.