Outstanding Grad: William Gonzalez, College of Health and Human Sciences

William Gonzalez (second from right), with his family, is graduating with his bachelor‘s degree in social work.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, in a neighborhood rife with gang activity, William Gonzalez learned early on that kids who carried books tended to get beat up more often.

So he kept one book at home and another copy at school.

“You either got beat up every day, or you beat somebody up, just to survive,” Gonzalez says. “Most of the people I was involved with are dead, in jail, on parole and or homeless.”

Gonzalez followed the advice of a high school teacher and entered the military after graduation.

“Thank God I listened to him,” he explains. “I had to get away from the gang violence before it was too late. I was involved in gang activity, but my heart wasn’t in it. It never ends well.”

Fast-forward 27 years. Gonzalez is no longer afraid to be seen carrying a book — he’ll graduate from Colorado State University May 17 with a bachelor‘s degree in social work.

But it was a long road. Gonzalez served for 14 years in the U.S. Navy and eight years in the Army, was deployed to many countries around the world and saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when he got out, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and started drinking. His wife, Blanca, gave him an ultimatum: Shape up, or the marriage is over.

“She’s my rock -– she literally took me by the hand to the VA,” Gonzalez says, referring to a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in the Los Angeles area where he got therapy, then gave up drinking. “My wife has been my main support system and my drive for everything.”

Move to Colorado

Seeking a better life for their son, Alex, the couple decided to get out of California for a fresh start. After considering Arizona, Texas and Oregon, they settled on Colorado — and CSU.

Gonzalez has been involved with the Social Work in Action student group on campus, and he has done an internship at the Murphy Center for Hope, helping Fort Collins’ homeless. One of his most impactful experiences was a practicum at a local elementary school where he mentored a low-income child who described his squalid living conditions — 11 family members in one hotel room – that reminded him of his own childhood.

“I felt really bad for him,” he said of the child, who was abruptly pulled out of school by his parents and moved to a different part of Colorado. “For a while, my family was struggling in a similar way, but we never let our socioeconomic status be apparent. We always had something on the table to eat. Eating a year-old expired Oreo for dinner is not ideal for a child.”

Gonzalez’s oldest child, daughter Tianna, will graduate from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida about 10 days before Gonzalez does, so the family will watch Tianna walk across the commencement stage before they all fly back for dad’s ceremony.

“I’m proud of where I am now,” Gonzalez says.

He plans to earn a graduate certificate in military and veteran culture from CSU before applying to the University’s master of social work program. His ultimate goal? To get a job with the VA so that he can help streamline the bureaucracy — or at least help other veterans navigate it.

“I think veterans feel more at ease talking with someone who’s been there, who’s a vet,” Gonzales says. “When you’re in that state of mind, you think you’re alone. But with the right medical treatment, many vets may come to the realization, as I did, that they don’t have to struggle alone, and that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.”