House call

October 6, 2010

In high school, Thomas Aguilar wasn’t a stellar student.  He lived in a troubled neighborhood, and as the child of immigrant, blue-collar workers, attending college wasn’t on his radar.  But that was then.  

Meet Thomas today and you’ll discover he’s made a big transition.  He’s excelling in one of Bradley University’s most rigorous academic programs, manufacturing engineering. He is a Marine veteran who served in the Middle East, a dedicated philanthropist, and an active proponent of higher education. And this week he was one of a handful of students from across the nation to participate in the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges.

“I have a principle of loyalty in representing the institutions and organizations that have served me: the Marines, Illinois Central College, and now Bradley University,” said Aguilar. “This was a way for me to give back, by offering my own story about the challenges I went through to get to Bradley.”

The summit was part of the Obama administration’s initiative to achieve the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Earlier this year, Obama signed legislation that will pump $2 billion into community colleges over the next four years.

Aguilar’s ascent from community college to a university of national distinction is the kind of success story the president hopes to propagate.  A former international vice president of Phi Theta Kappa, the largest honor society in higher education, Aguilar hasn’t just carved an educational path for himself, he has immersed himself in promoting academics worldwide.

Aguilar is a perfect case study for those seeking to fill college and university classrooms. As a Marine who struggled to make the transition from military life to a campus community, he can empathize with the anxiety many veterans face when they consider college.  During a summit breakout session, Aguilar offered his insights and suggestions to representatives from various veteran support groups, college administrators, and even Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Chairman Mullen seemed particularly interested when I promoted the idea of starting transitional training earlier in the military career,” said Aguilar. “Introducing higher education as an option right away will help veterans set a plan for the future and take better advantage of available resources.”

As Aguilar draws closer to achieving a dream many said was far-fetched – a degree from Bradley’s nationally recognized College of Engineering and Technology – he has no plans to leave education behind.

“In general, I’m passionate about education. When I think about public service down the road, I think I’d like to pursue something in education,” said Aguilar, who is considering law school after earning his bachelor’s degree.