Mark Gilbert Alcala and family.

Graduation Day was described as “kind of emotional” for Mark Gilbert Alcala.

His family cheered for him from the stands. “Marine!” his brother yelled, as he was handed his degree.

It was fitting that the graduation celebration for Mark Gilbert Alcala was held at the American Legion in San Fernando – after all, he’s is a former Marine with strong family ties to the local veteran’s organization.

To start the festivities, three local members of the Marine Corps League marched into the hall carrying the United States and U.S. Marine Corps flags. Going to college was an unexpected road for Alcala, who was only 22 when he completed his service.  

“I never thought that I wanted to go to college, but then we got pregnant and I wanted to better myself and have a good future. Once I started, I really liked going,” Alcala said.

It would be the military and the GI Bill that helped finance Alcala’s college education, first at Mission College and then later after transferring to Cal State University Dominguez Hills. But it was Alcala who had the internal drive to keep his young family afloat and, with his wife, to set up a five-year plan to reach his goals, including earning a B.A. degree in accounting with a minor in information systems.  

“When I was at Mission College, I believe it was the President from the Stub Hub — that was the Home Depot Center at the time — who spoke to our class. He said he would not hire anyone who didn’t have an accounting background. At first I was going into business, but after listening to him, I went specifically toward accounting,” Acala said.

With a wife and two small children to support, Acala worked as many as 60 hours a week at a full-time job then traveled to his college classes at night, staying focused on his goal.

It would take him eight years from the time he left the military to complete enough night classes to earn his degree, and take more time to earn the minor degree, but it still was within the five-year period when he set up his plan.

“I wake up at 4 a.m., go to the gym and then to work, finishing work at 6 p.m. Then I’d go to my classes at night,” he said.

He would find windows of time — before the start of work or after work — to study and complete homework before classes started.

Alcala works as a driver for Republic Waste Disposal, and now with the degree in hand he has let his employer and others know that he is ready to move from outside to work inside an office building. He is also interested in developing his next five-year plan that could allow him to pursue a Master’s degree.

When asked if he has a message for others, Acala said, “the day before I graduated I was still taking finals. Graduation Day was emotional. You always think, ‘I’m almost there,’ and then it was here. If you want something, it’s worth finishing it.”