The Spark: When I Decided to Give School Another Chance

People who say they joined the military because they aren’t “made” for college fool themselves. Although, they may be correct at the time that they find themselves in the recruiting office. I was one of those people that tried and utterly failed. I was not made for it but was foolish enough to try at two different colleges without any foundational reformations in my habits. I was not driven, and I did not have the discipline. What I was missing the most was the confidence to succeed. I knew this was a core value of being a Marine and led me to sign my life away. Maybe not so much in maturity but in confidence, no doubt. This seemed obvious to my friends and family, but not to me. Not until I decided to confront the beast of academia for the third time. The military transformed me, and this time I had been “made” to conquer anything. After multiple failures, this is the story of the spark that ignited my future.

On May 12, 2017, a single thought sparked my return to academia and transpired into being an engineering student at one of the country’s most renowned universities. My girlfriend Vanessa was graduating from the University of Southern California with her bachelor’s degree. Although I had grown up in Los Angeles as an avid Trojan fan, I had never stepped foot on USC’s campus before. The red bricks and exquisite architecture were truly captivating but, what stood out to me were the thousands of families taking photos of their proud graduates draped in red and gold floral arrangements. Even though I was older than most of them, I respected them for accomplishing something that I thoroughly failed at. At that moment, all my aversion to higher education went away. I thought that, “If they can do it, why couldn’t I?” The military had instilled the confidence and drive in me that many people don’t have, and I would not let my previous failure follow me through life.

Sage Clark with Vanessa on the day of her graduation from USC.

Up to this point, higher education seemed like a goal that was impractical for me. Barely graduating high school and flunking out of community college seemed like a stain I would never be able to overcome. Out of spite and complete ignorance, I told Vanessa, ”I will graduate here one day.” I love challenges, which is why I chose to join the Marine Corps. The confidence I gained as service members can be seen by some as arrogance or plain stupidity. Still, it is astonishing to see how far it has taken many of my veteran peers and me in academia. There are many marines at USC, and we have concluded that it’s for a combination of two reasons, we love the colors and that we are too dumb to quit. We, of course, joke about this, but it is the beautiful resilience that we have and the desire for accomplishing difficult tasks that sets us all apart.

The week after her graduation, I went to Camp Pendleton’s education center and signed up for my first class as a new student. A few months later, I got my first A since my high school PE class. This momentum carried on to completing 45 credits with a 4.0 GPA by the time I EASed two years later. My success as a student still seems surreal since I never imagined that I would be here today studying thermodynamics and computational optimization at the University of Southern California and getting paid to do it. Before this pandemic every day, I walked through the same courtyard I was in that summer day and reminded myself how thankful I am to take the challenge. That stain of failure is now a testimony that I am proud to share and encourages me to spread the word to all the veterans I can. Sadly, not everyone will have an experience like this and will find more reasons to stay away from formal education. Admittedly, at the graduation, I wasn’t seeing the professional implications and the overwhelming benefits I would have towards pursuing school again. Even more importantly, I had no idea how much my military background would amplify my experience. I didn’t know much of anything at all. Looking back, I truly have no regrets of even the failures as I could not have orchestrated a better outcome. I used to aim for the sky, but now I aim for space and beyond, literally and figuratively.  This summer, I will be living a dream of mine and working on one of the most significant space programs in modern history. It was my pettiness of not allowing myself to be defeated by anything. I challenge all of you who have been discouraged or think this is impossible to throw those ideas out the window. On that unforeseen summer day, the spark struck and is now a glorious fire in my heart to change the world in a significant way.