James McQuoid was on security detail in Afghanistan when he decided to take the SATs. “It was a lot calmer than in Iraq,” he explained.
McQuoid, formerly a Marine infantryman, enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, reporting to boot camp just weeks after high school graduation. He was soon stationed in Hawaii—much to his delight—and then sent to a ship as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit. When the ship was rerouted to Kuwait and McQuoid’s unit was pushed up to Fallujah, things got rough. His deployment was extended to 10 months, and while in Iraq he was responsible for demolition. The constant explosions and the intense battle left McQuoid with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although he didn’t realize the extent of the damage until much later.
What he did realize quickly was that he didn’t want to expose himself to more dangerous demolition work. He started thinking seriously about his future.
“When you’re in a foreign country that you’re trying to stabilize, 90% of the time it’s unbelievably boring, interrupted by short moments of intense horror,” McQuoid explained. “You have a lot of time to think.” Around this same time, in 2006, McQuoid’s wife, back home in California, gave birth to their son. “That was a huge turning point for me. I stopped drinking and smoking and started thinking, ‘What am I going to do to support my family?’”
By chance, some fellow Marines were watching What the Bleep Do We Know?, a movie that explores questions of quantum physics and spirituality and how humanity attempts to understand our world. “It blew my mind,” recalled McQuoid. “I really got interested in the basics behind quantum mechanics. If you mentioned becoming a physics teacher to me at the time I would have looked at you like you’re crazy. But when you really look at the subject matter, it’s not hard—just a different way of thinking and a lot of people are scared of thinking differently.” Suddenly, McQuoid had found the subject he wanted to study.
As he prepared to leave active duty in July 2007, McQuoid began his college search. He knew that the anxiety he experienced as a result of PTSD would make attending a traditional college too much of a challenge, so he found Western Governors University (WGU), where the courses are primarily online. WGU gives students all their coursework at once and the students have six months to complete it. The school helps students stay on track by creating communities and cohorts for support, as well as study groups where they pair students with mentors who schedule weekly phone calls to answer questions. That intensive level of support appealed to McQuoid. He enrolled as a biology major because there wasn’t yet a physics program, but switched when WGU created a physics major.
Brain injuries and PTSD are notorious for wrecking one’s memory. While McQuoid has certainly suffered from memory problems, he has still been able to successfully go back to school.
“What’s hard to remember for me is something that’s going to change later,” he explained. “I have to remember the pattern and that’s hard for me to do. If I try to cook something, I put the pot on the stove, I let it boil and walk away. In my mind the pot is still there and not getting any hotter until I come back.”
“In physics there are laws. If I drop something it’s going to hit the ground at the rate which gravity pulls something to the ground. Physics is finite. That’s why I’m able to remember a lot of physics,” he said. “I also keep a lot of notes. I’ve got a notebook full of equations and a 4×8 white board filled with notes.” Conversations and meetings related to his coursework are recorded and he can watch recordings as needed.
McQuoid has worked extensively with a memory therapist in San Francisco to help him develop techniques to strengthen his memory.
At first McQuoid was attending school and simultaneously undergoing treatment for anxiety and anger issues related to his brain injury and PTSD. “I thought I could do it but it was too much and I had to stop going to school,” he said. McQuoid received treatment at the Pathway Home. “They were really good about figuring out what calms you down and helping you build on that.” After weeks of classes, the treatment center suggested McQuoid focus on music and art to continue his recovery. “It was really healing. I’ve always been artistic and musical. I played piano for 18 years and guitar. But the military has no room for that—you’re in a spot where you have to think fast and act fast or you die fast. There’s no time to appreciate art or anything like that.”
After taking the time he needed to recover, McQuoid returned to WGU. He has completed his physics courses and most of his education courses and taken the teacher certification exam. He still has to take chemistry and fulfill some basic requirements before beginning his student teaching. However, after taking time off for treatment, McQuoid realized he was out of money. McQuoid’s wife has been a source of support in many ways, among them serving as his chief scholarship researcher. She went online and found out about the Society of Sponsors scholarship, formerly administered by the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
“When I got out of the Corps I felt alone — besides my wife and son,” McQuoid recalled. “Since then, I’ve learned a lot. There are people who want to help you, like the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and the Society of Sponsors. I am so thankful to them for giving me a chance to prove that I can do this. No matter how disabled I am, I have the capability to do this. Every human has unlimited potential. With all this potential energy you just need to know how to channel it and make it flow. If you can do that – the world is your oyster.”