May 2, 2024

By Callum Riley, BA ’13

Christopher Marmolejo, Sr. has never shied away from a mission. With over 20 years of service in the U.S. Army, Army Reserves, and the Active Guard Reserve (AGR), including three tours in Iraq, he's adept at coordinating people, operations and exercises. But as his time in active-duty military service ended, Christopher knew that success in the next chapter would require more than his military background. Education became his new mission.

In 2016, as he was serving his last terminal assignment at Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA) - Fort Sam Houston, Christopher acted on his instincts, took the leap and visited the education office on base. “In the military, you can be in charge in a sense without a degree, but I didn’t have a degree, so I knew I had to do something and go back to school," he said.

As he walked into the Army education office, his eyes landed on a massive UIW banner, sparking his interest in the local university. A San Antonio native, Christopher knew about the University but had never considered the prospect of attending classes there.

UIW students

Gently laughing, Christopher says, "I was born and raised in San Antonio. I knew UIW growing up as the premier private school, the beautiful school, the expensive school … that’s what people thought in the city when they thought of UIW!"

But he quickly realized just how much UIW had to offer. In fact, as a Yellow Ribbon School, UIW has an agreement with the VA to fund the tuition and fee costs that exceed the yearly national cap for students enrolled in private institutions. The Yellow Ribbon Program is utilized in conjunction with students' Post 9-11 GI Bill®.

Starting with one class per semester in UIW’s School of Professional Studies, Christopher balanced military commitments with coursework. In 2018, a medical board led to full-time enrollment at UIW, where he embraced campus life, immersing himself in the student experience. In 2020, he was medically discharged.

"I fell in love with the school and the whole university experience,” he shared. I was part of the triathlon team for a while, and participated in everything on campus I could. I got involved with the Student Veterans of America (SVA) and wound up serving as the president of that organization for three years.”

The enjoyment Christopher felt during his educational journey translated into academic success.

In August 2019, he achieved his Associate of Arts in General Studies. In May 2020, Christopher earned his bachelor’s degree in Administration with a minor in Human Resources, which he celebrated with UIW’s virtual ceremony that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. In August 2022, he earned his Master of Business Administration in Human Resource Management. Today, he’s working toward his Doctor of Business Administration degree.

This incredible path inspired Christopher to encourage others to set out on their own educational journeys. He started his lobbying campaign with those he loved the most, his family.

“As I rose through the ranks on my education journey, I thought there’s no way, as the head of my household, I can make it all the way to the top while my family is still at the bottom. So, I began to strategize and find ways we could all get to the same level, to lift those people I love through education.”

Patricia MarmolejoPatricia Marmolejo: Overcoming the Barriers

As an immigrant from El Salvador, Christopher’s wife, Patricia, has her own story of overcoming barriers. When she came to the U.S. at just 16 years old, Patricia did not speak English. This language barrier challenged her as she navigated life in a new country.

"I was afraid to go out to the grocery stores or go and buy clothes because of the language barrier. It took me a long time to get comfortable over here,” she explained.

This fear also extended to her education, especially growing up in a community that valued work over school.

"In El Salvador, education isn’t prioritized. Work is seen as the priority. No one tells you that you could be a doctor, or you could be a teacher," said Patricia.

Although she was initially put off by the idea of completing her high school studies in the U.S., with the support of her family and state education programs, Patricia attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and earned her high school diploma.

After meeting in California, the couple moved to Texas where their family grew.

Patricia took joy in seeing her husband find a new passion in education after retiring from the military and often accompanied him to events on Broadway campus.

"I got to know UIW because of my husband,” she recalled. “We attended a lot of events on campus, like tailgates, he was always there helping, and of course, I was going to go, too … but at the start, I didn’t feel like I was part of it."

Slowly but surely, Christopher Sr. Encouraged Patricia to take a class at UIW.

"My husband kept telling me to try out a class at UIW,” said Patricia. “He’d say to me, ‘You can do it – it’s just one class.' He wouldn’t give up! In the end, I gave in and took a class and loved it," said Patricia.

After taking that first class, Patricia kept going and achieved her associate degree in December 2023. She was the first member of her family to earn a college degree and often reflects on the impact her journey will have on her loved ones.

"Coming over here and being a role model for my children is so important to me. My babies are so excited to see their mom earn a college degree. The best way I can show my siblings, parents and grandparents that there is more to life than just work is by doing it. If I can get a degree with the language barrier, they can too. We don’t need that excuse anymore."

Patricia is now working towards a Bachelor of Arts in Human Resources at UIW and credits the loving encouragement from her husband as the key to her journey so far.

"It has been everything,” Patricia said with a smile. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without Christopher. He pushed me, advised me and inspired me. I knew he had a plan to make me join him at UIW. And it worked.”

CJ MarmolejoCJ Marmolejo: A New Path

It wasn’t just Patricia that Christopher nudged to take classes at the University. He also carried out a campaign to convince his son, Christopher Jr (CJ), to give higher education a chance.

"I’d been working in retail for a long time. Dad was always trying to convince me to try out classes. In the end, I gave in. I thought, ‘what could it hurt?’" said CJ.

CJ soon found himself enrolled in online classes and before long, had become a fulltime student at UIW. Just like his father, he became an active member of the UIW community, regularly volunteering with organizations on campus.

As a bonus, CJ got to spend quality time with his dad, something that wasn’t always accessible to him growing up.

"It was cool to volunteer with the SVA. I managed to get both my community service hours and spend time with my dad all in one. Sometimes it was a little difficult growing up because I’d miss him, especially when he was gone for long periods of time," explained CJ.

In May 2022, CJ earned his associate degree in Information Systems. He is scheduled to graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration with a concentration in Information Systems in May 2025.

Enhancing The Heroes of Our Society

When Christopher began his journey at UIW as a full-time student, he was keen to find rewarding work on campus to supplement his studies. A student-employee role he found in the student disability office turned out to be the perfect fit. It was in this position that Christopher was also witness to the negative stereotypes and inaccuracies surrounding the veteran community.

"I’d regularly hear some of the negative stigma associated with veterans. You know, all veterans have PTSD, all veterans are angry and frustrated, it was all that negative thinking about the veteran community."

These experiences compelled Christopher to act on behalf of the military community. To quell those stereotypes both outside and inside the veteran community, he founded a non-profit, Enhancing the Heroes in Our Society (E.T.H.O.S.).

"I thought, ‘we have to think differently.’ I started a non-profit to combat this type of negative stigma surrounding veterans and mental health. We wanted to promote the idea within our community that it’s ok not to be ok."

In the college setting, and through his work and experiences with E.T.H.O.S., Christopher and his family had the chance to hear what other veterans had to say about their own experiences, challenges and needs. This dialogue ultimately inspired Christopher to research scholarship programs for veterans. Through his research, Christopher learned that veterans often don’t make it to the doctorate level, not because they don’t have the desire to, but because they run out of education benefits.

"I spoke with Jonathan Lovejoy, senior director of Military & Veteran Affairs and said that we needed a scholarship for veterans. I’d researched other universities and couldn’t find one. I think the assumption is that veterans and military-connected families’ needs are fulfilled by different benefits, and they don’t need additional support," explained Christopher.

Through his personal experiences and in his conversations within the veteran community, Christopher knew this wasn’t the case. Some veterans don’t realize their benefits expire, others don’t know how to unlock them, and others transfer all their benefits to their families.

Christopher took on the challenge and founded UIW’s inaugural scholarship for veterans through E.T.H.O.S. In December 2023, UIW President Dr. Thomas Evans and his wife Lisa, both passionate supporters of the military, took the veteran scholarship to the next level and created The Evans Endowed Veterans Scholarship Fund.

"I’m proud and honored to be able to have started the first ever UIW veteran scholarship and to watch it grow,” shared Christopher. “I’m also so thankful to the Evans family. They donated and established an endowed veterans scholarship."

“We’d like to thank him for establishing the strategic priority of making UIW the premier school for veterans and military-connected families,” he continued. “For him to make that a top priority shows how much he truly cares about veterans. It shows that it does start at the top. And we are so thankful for that."

With final reflections on their journey, the Marmolejos expressed gratitude to UIW's supportive community and leadership. Their story underscores UIW's Mission to empower veterans and their families, leaving a legacy of service and education.