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Navy veteran plans dental career

Student Success Story, May 18, 2012

Marco Spencer Marco Spencer

When Marco Spencer came to the United States at age 16, he knew he wanted to go to college eventually, but felt stymied by the language barrier and the challenges of adapting to a new culture.

After service in the U.S. Navy and a strong start at the Community College of Rhode Island, he is ready to pursue his dream of working in medicine.

Spencer, 27, emigrated from Cape Verde in 2002 to live with his father in Providence. He began classes at Central High School in the middle of the academic year – an awkward time to begin school – and his limited language skills further added to his challenges.

“As you can imagine it’s quite a difficult experience not having a grasp of the language and not knowing anyone,” Spencer said.

He spent his first summer in America rigorously studying English and watching countless movies with subtitles to help him learn. He joined the high school soccer team the next fall and did much better socially and academically.

Spencer wanted to attend college, but didn’t yet feel ready.

“Education has always been No. 1,” he said, “but it was scary at the time because I had only been here for a year and a half and college felt like this big thing you have to be ready for.”

When a recruiter told him about the Navy, Spencer thought it would be a good opportunity to improve his language skills, get a sense of American social dynamics and earn money for school.

“I felt that I didn’t have a good grasp of the language and the social interactions,” Spencer said. “I wanted to know how society was different from what I was used to.”

He graduated from high school in 2003 and immediately enlisted in the Navy, arriving in Japan in 2004. He eventually saw Guam, Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore and the Horn of Africa during his service, but it was not the stereotypical Navy experience.

“It’s the Navy, so everyone thinks of ships,” Spencer said, “but I was in aviation.”

Spencer was responsible for loading ordnance onto combat aircraft and later for maintenance of the P-3 Orion surveillance plane.

He enjoyed his job and the experience of serving. “I learned what I needed to learn about being here,” Spencer said. “In a matter of two or three years I go from living in Cape Verde – it’s small, not many people know where it is – to being with all these people my age and a little older in this multicultural environment.”

Spencer left the Navy in October 2008 and began taking classes at the Community College of Rhode Island in spring 2009, thanks to funding from the GI Bill.

Spencer had been interested in medicine from a young age and wanted to study it in college.

“I always knew that I wanted to work in the health field,” he said. “My mom is a nurse and I would play with any medical tools she brought home.”

He decided to become a dentist after researching many health care professions and, although CCRI does not have a program in dentistry, Spencer thought it would be a good place to get used to college.

“I’d been away from school for six years so I thought I needed a better foundation,” he said.

He worked in the Dental Hygiene Clinic under Dental Health Department Chair Kathy Gazzola, who he thanked for her support, and became even more convinced that dentistry was the right path for him.

“I was there all the time with these dentists and I got to ask them a lot of questions,” Spencer said.

He also was involved with the CCRI International Club during his three years at CCRI, eventually serving as its president.

He was a member of the Access to Opportunity program, which assists first-generation college students as they complete school.

“My first semester here I was on my own, but then I discovered Access and met [Access Program Coordinator] Monica Lee, who has been the difference-maker,” Spencer said. “If there’s been any success at CCRI it’s been because of her.”

Spencer also thanked Professor Emanuel Terezakis, Professor Gerard Brousseau, Associate Professor Isabel Trombetti, Professor Wendy Pelto, Vice President for Student Services Ronald Schertz and Associate Dean of Student Life Rebecca Yount.

Spencer graduated on May 18 with a degree in General Studies and a 3.61 GPA. He has been accepted to Stony Brook University, Salve Regina, Providence College, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Vermont, but will make his final decision based on financial aid.

“I’m prepared to go anywhere,” he said, in summing up his experience at the college. “[CCRI graduates are] prepared to go to any college and succeed there.”

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Last Updated: 1/31/14