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After 12 years in the Navy, W&M undergrad reflects on new life and ambitions at college

Christina Tonnochy ’23 served in the U.S. Navy for 12 years. She is a transfer student from Thomas Nelson Community College, majoring in accounting. This is her first semester at William & Mary. We asked her to speak with us about her experiences transitioning from the military into the classroom and what she plans to do with her degree.

Thanks for taking the time to sit down and talk about the wealth of experience you bring with you to William & Mary. Let’s start at the beginning and tell me about where you’re from.  

I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area. So, a California native. I’m a first gen student, so the first in my family to attend college. My family is Mexican-American and I grew up in a largely immigrant community – but to be totally honest, I never thought about it like that. Growing up, I just knew that everybody around was Mexican, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized there were terms for towns like mine, that people called it an “immigrant community.” For me, it was just my home and I wouldn’t have recognized it as anything else.

And you must have joined the military relatively young to have 12 years of service under your belt by now?

Right. I was 18 when I joined the Navy, so I was the age of the students in my classes right now. It brings back memories. It’s kind of the same idea really, you’re leaving home for the first time, going away to a college campus to live in dorms with your peers. You’re on your own for the first time. 

In that sense, it’s very similar to shipping off and joining the military. You’re living in barracks with people who are about your same age, all experiencing living on their own for the first time. I look around the classroom now and seeing the students brings back a lot of memories from my early years in the military.

And what did you do over the course of your 12-year career in the Navy?

I was a military police officer. For the first few years, that was really my focus. I always say that anything that you would imagine a civilian police officer does, that's what we did. The only difference is we also had to control the access points to the installation.

So, it would be like police officers standing at city limits, ensuring you secure access, but in addition to their regular duties like patrolling, responding to calls of service, just helping out the citizens any way we could.

I did that for the first few years and then when I went overseas, it was a little bit more anti-terrorism force, protection-based work. And then after that, I found my niche, my favorite place to be: an aircraft carrier. I could have spent 20 years on that ship.

Really? What was appealing about being stationed on an aircraft carrier?

There was this big sense of camaraderie. We were stuck together, way out there with nowhere to go, so the people you worked with really became your family. It was a great place for me to hone my supervisory skills and learn my leadership skills, because that was the first time that I was really responsible for people other than myself. It was a great place to learn how to be a leader -- and it's just, well it's fun.

How so?

You’re with your friends and the worries of the real world are gone. I mean, they're still your coworkers, you still have a job to do, but you have meals together, attend workshops together, you enjoy each other’s company. And then there are the port visits. You get to see the world. It may be only for a few days at a time, but it’s pretty amazing.

Talk to me about your experience transitioning out of the military into an academic environment.

So, the last part of my service I lived in Hampton Roads and was stationed in Portsmouth. My transition from active duty to community college, was surprisingly easy.  I was shocked at how seamless it was – but I think that was because we were still mid-pandemic, so all the learning was virtual. I was able to do everything on my own time, at my own pace. We weren’t back in the classroom yet.

I will say that one thing made the transition particularly challenging and that was on my second-to-last day in the military, my house burned down.

I am so sorry to hear that, Christina. That is unbelievably awful.  

I’m ok now. We’re all fine, but it was such a tough start to my first semester in college. It was smooth for about two weeks. I was just getting the hang of it and then my entire world came crashing down. My family and I, we lost everything.

When I say everything, we lost everything. The only thing that was left to my house was the frame. We left with the clothes on our backs and that was it. So, with all that thrown into the mix, I got a little bit behind on my schoolwork, but my professors were really understanding and I was able to catch up, and then kind of just keep going.

What an incredible start to your career in academia. You have tremendous fortitude to have had the will to keep going.

It happened right at the start of the semester. It's my first time in college and I was freaking out, but we got everything figured out and we got into our routine. And then, coming here from Thomas Nelson was a complete wake-up call. Being at William & Mary, and being in-person, in a classroom, is completely different and extremely challenging.

How have you been handling it?

What I bring to the table as a veteran is kind of a discipline that I developed during my career in the service. At community college, there were different expectations and everything worked around my own pace, but here, I go to class and am expected to remain focused and do the work. I show respect to my professors, just like I showed respect to my superiors in the military, but I also know I can lean on them and they are here to help me do my absolute best.

So, if I have questions, I’m not afraid to come to them for help. And they're going to help guide me through my journey here, the same way my leadership would guide me in the military. The professors have been so willing to help. If I need them, they are there. Every single time I ask for help, they are right there ready to help me. They have never once told me I had to figure this out on my own. They have been incredibly supportive.

Why did you feel like a William & Mary education was the right next step for you?

Well, first and foremost, it was not really an option for me. I have a family, two young children, to provide for. In the military, I had a career, so I never worried about providing for my family, but now I’m starting my own career path outside of the military and I need to be practical about providing for them, so I’m majoring in accounting. I need to specialize in something that I can fall back on, because life happens. I mean, I'm the first person to know that things happen unexpectedly.

That said, I knew from a very young age that I've always wanted to be a lawyer. And even though I didn't go to college after high school and I went straight into the military, that was something that I pursued extensively in the military. I kept getting denied, and I kept getting denied, I would apply and I would apply for all of these programs that would help you get there and I would keep getting denied. My ultimate goal is to get a law degree. 

What is the motivating factor for you in wanting to become a lawyer? 

This is going to sound cheap, but it’s genuinely how I feel, I want to change the world – and I feel the only way that I'm going to do that is with a law degree and working in Washington, D.C. I want to make real change for people who look like me and come from the places I come from. In particular, I’m very interested in immigration. I wake up every day and it’s always in the back of my mind. There are members of my family that we don’t know if they are going to be there the next day, because of their immigration status. 

That’s true of so many people in my community. It's just not fair. Like, they didn't do anything wrong. Children shouldn't have to worry that their dad might not be here when they get home from school. If I can make a difference somewhere, then I feel I have to try.

If anyone can do it, I believe you can. Thank you for chatting with me – and I mean this in all seriousness, thank you for your service to this country.