SAN MARCOS, Calif. – When Alpha Sigma Phi member Stephen “Vee” Vandereb steps up to the microphone to deliver the commencement speech to his fellow Cal State San Marcos graduates, he hopes the audience sees him as more than a man who excelled in college. He hopes they understand how much he overcame to get there.

Ten years ago, the 27-year-old was an ex-gang member living in his car with a baby on the way. Today, the Marine Corps veteran will graduate cum laude with a long list of honors to his credit. Next fall, he’ll start graduate school, with the goal of becoming a university sociology professor who can teach non-traditional students like himself that the adversities they face are merely challenges to overcome.

“I want to reach a wide spectrum of students and teach them that the least we can do is prove to the world that we took the good part of our experiences and used them as a tool to empower ourselves,” he said.

Vandereb was one of nearly 3,800 students who graduated from CSUSM at ceremonies last weekend. It’s the largest graduating class in university history. Vandereb is among the 55% of this year’s graduates who are the first in their families to earn a four-year college degree. As a Latino, he is also among the 42% of graduates who identify as under-represented minorities.

Vandereb grew up in a poor, crime-plagued neighborhood of Oceanside, Calif., where he joined a gang in his early teens. He fought and got in trouble constantly, but left the gang at 15 after he saw his younger brother beaten bloody in a fight. A year later, Vandereb learned he was going to become a father, and when his parents heard the news, they kicked him out.

For the next year, he battled homelessness, dropped out of school for six months and struggled to keep a job to pay for the needs of his daughter, Keira Lee, who is now 11. He graduated from Oceanside High with honors, but could never find a job that made enough money to support himself and his daughter, so he joined the Marine Corps.

“I felt like everything I was doing was never enough to make up for the cost of becoming a teen parent. The Marines offered me some stability,” he said.

After serving for four years as a corporal in logistics at Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, he left the service and enrolled at MiraCosta College. When his ex-girlfriend moved with their daughter to Arizona in 2016, Vandereb initially applied to be a transfer student at Arizona State University. But when his parents split up and left the family home in Oceanside – threatening Vandereb’s two younger brothers, Dezzy and Jojo, with homelessness – he moved in, took over the house payments and transferred instead to Cal State San Marcos.

On his registration day at CSUSM three years ago, academic advisor Silvia Grover said she encouraged Vandereb to embrace the college experience, attend classes full time and involve himself in campus activities. He dove in eagerly. In his first year, he volunteered as a tutor at a group home for at-risk girls. Then he volunteered for the summer orientation team that welcomed new students to CSUSM. Grover said the orientation program not only transformed Vandereb’s personality, it helped him find his passion for helping others.

“That was huge for him. He blossomed into this confident, really outstanding person,” Grover said. “He finally was able to see something he wanted to do – to help people like himself. He was invested in this. He was hungry for higher education. He did it and I’m incredibly proud of him.”

In his three years at CSUSM, Vandereb helped found an academic honor society for transfer students and a campus chapter of the fraternity Alpha Sigma Phi. He has won the Civility Champion Award, Senior of the Year Award, Overachievement Award, Civic Engagement & Social Responsibility Award and many other honors.

He was also invited to speak this year at a communications conference in Washington state about how social media can have a negative impact on mental health as it leads many people to create a facade to the world.

It was a subject close to his heart. In spite of all his achievements, Vandereb said he hid for years the fact that no matter how much he achieved in college, he didn’t feel like he belonged or deserved to be there. It wasn’t until he began studying sociology and telling his story a few years ago that he began feeling understood and accepted.

“Sociology saved my life,” he said. “It helped me to think different, be more critical, be more patient and be less aggressive. It has allowed me to connect with myself and with others.”

Last year, Vandereb was hired as a student assistant in the Graduate Studies and Research department. It’s unusual for an undergrad to land a job there, but Dean Wesley Schultz said Vandereb was a good hire because he’s personable, easy to talk to and a great ambassador for the university. Over the past year, Schultz said he’s watched Vandereb grow in confidence and find peace with himself.

“Vee was a good student but he didn’t see himself as the type of student who succeeded at the university level. But as he continued to have success, he said, ‘I am really good at this and I do belong here,'” Schultz said.

Schultz said he would like to see Vandereb go on to earn his master’s degree in sociological practice, then his doctorate, and come back to Cal State San Marcos some day.

“I want him to be a professor here,” Schultz said. “He understands our population and he’d be excellent for our faculty.”