John L Estrada, 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps

United States Marine Corps – served 1973-2007
University of Phoenix Class of August 2010 – Bachelor of Science in Business Management

It’s never too late to earn a degree

When Estrada first enlisted in the Marines, his future plans included attending a traditional university and taking courses in a physical classroom. When Lockheed Martin hired him soon after his retirement from a military career spanning 34 years, he realized that going to a traditional university would be a strain. While his goal of earning a degree remained, he needed a college that would help him reach his goal while allowing him to maintain his on-the-go work schedule.

After considering many colleges with online programs, and just two months after leaving the service, Estrada enrolled at University of Phoenix in August 2007. He attended classes online, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Management, which enabled him to work and learn at the same time. He’s described the flexibility of the online program as “awesome,” but he’s also quick to point out that online learning isn’t easy. “Online learning might seem more convenient, but it’s tough as heck,” he said. “It’s more challenging and requires more focus because your classmates aren’t next to you, face-to-face. I believe online classes actually encourage more critical thinking.”

He credits his military background with helping him prepare for the college experience – saying the discipline he learned and used every day in the Marines serves as the foundation for everything else. Effective time management became increasingly important as he worked to complete his degree program while also maintaining a busy work schedule.

“I already had a lot of experience that I brought to the table,” says Estrada. “I know a degree can’t replace the experience and knowledge I gained in the military, especially when they can be directly applied to my job with one of the largest defense contractors in the world. I know a degree can help me advance. And now that I’ve earned it, I’m prepared to move up within the company when and if the opportunity becomes available.”

From the Caribbean to the Marines

Born and raised just off the coast of Venezuela in the small Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Estrada immigrated with his family to the Unites States when he was 14 years old. In September of 1973, shortly after earning his high school diploma, he joined the Marines.

During the early years of his military career, as the Vietnam War was coming to a close, getting a formal education beyond high school didn’t have the importance – or the implicit expectation – that it does today. Splitting time between a military career and going to college was not an option for Estrada. He preferred to focus on one thing at a time so he could give it his best effort. Back then, his focus was on being the best Marine he could be – because for him, being a marine was a 24/7 commitment.

Rising through the ranks

Estrada’s military career flourished over the next 30 years. Beginning as a Private, he rose through the ranks – achieving the highest enlisted rank of Sergeant Major in July of 1995. He earned many personal awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with three gold stars, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Joint Services Achievement Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

In June of 2003, the focus and dedication Estrada exhibited from the day he entered the service paid off when he was chosen for one of the highest honors – serving as the 15th Sergeant Major of the United States Marine Corps (SMMC) – a position held by only 14 other individuals since 1957.

The post is a four-year assignment, in which he served as the senior enlisted advisor to the 33rd and 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps on everything in the service – from warfare readiness and quality of life, to issues that affect all enlisted Marines. He also testified annually before a congressional subcommittee about the state of the Marine Corps and its readiness, and to garner funding support for improved infrastructure and quality-of-life programs for Marines and their dependents.

Opportunity comes knocking

After 34 years of service to the Marines and our country, with deployments both stateside and in the western Pacific, the 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps officially retired in June of 2007. He planned to take a year off to relax and unwind without any plans to enter the work force. Then, Lockheed Martin came knocking on his door.

Knowing of his accomplishments, his medals, and the levels of respect he had earned throughout his career in the Marines, Lockheed Martin sought after Estrada to oversee its wholly owned subsidiary, Lockheed Martin Training Solutions. Estrada couldn’t pass up this amazing opportunity and signed on to become the subsidiary’s senior program manager, overseeing approximately 1,100 employees involved in executing simulated training programs for future military aviators, as well as other ground and logistics programs.

“You’re never too old”

Estrada is proud to have reached a longtime personal milestone. “You’re never too old,” he says. “It sets a very good example for the people I come in contact with, including the young ones. They say to me, ‘If you’ve had a successful career, why should you get a degree?’ I tell them it’s very rewarding for me personally, and I encourage them to go for it because you can never get enough education.”

Considering the investment, time and effort it involves, Estrada offers this advice to fellow veterans on how to get started: “Get with Veterans Affairs to know what’s available to you and what you’re eligible for in terms of funding; but also see what time you can afford to spend on your education.”

“You served our country. Our country is rewarding you with the opportunity to continue your education so you can be more successful. Knowledge is power. You should take advantage of that. You’ve earned it.”