Monday, February 13, 2017

Former tech for Marine One now excels at Cuyamaca College

It took James McAllister just a few weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to enlist in the Marine Corps. He would have signed up sooner, but he had to wait until his 17th birthday.

“I was a high school senior, and up to that point I was unsure of what I wanted to do,” said McAllister. “But after 9/11, there was no doubt.”

After 13 years that as a Marine Corps avionics technician who at one time helped maintain the Presidential helicopter, McAllister is flourishing at Cuyamaca College while striving for a career as a software engineer. His exceptionalism led the Foundation for Grossmont & Cuyamaca Community Colleges to award him a $500 Barnes and Noble Scholarship during a Feb. 11 gala at Grossmont College recognizing students' academic accomplishments.


“I’m very grateful for the award,” said McAllister. “In a normal semester, you could spend several hundred dollars on books. This scholarship will go a long way in helping me secure the materials I need to succeed without having to compromise.”

McAllister’s instructors say no one is more deserving of the award.

“James stands out as a person with integrity along with a true desire to excel and succeed,” said John Gerstenberg, an adjunct professor who teaches computer programming and related courses. “His self-discipline to complete assignments on time, his attention to detail, and his work in both my classes was exemplary. I was always impressed with how much time he spent helping others who were struggling in the class during lab, when he could have gone home for the night, and the amount of patience he has. He is a person who consistently goes above and beyond the call of duty.”

McAllister’s journey to Cuyamaca College began in Middletown, N.Y. The son of a New York City Police officer, McAllister, 31, rarely saw his father in the aftermath of 9/11, as the elder McAllister was busy working 12-hour shifts and spending nights at his mother’s house in the Bronx in the chaos that followed.

“I grew up fast,” McAllister said.

He signed up for the Marines the day after he turned 17 on Oct. 20. He graduated from high school in June of 2002. That August, he was off to boot camp in Parris Island. From there, McAllister spent a year training as an avionics technician before being attached to the Quantico, Va.- based HMX-1, the presidential helicopter squadron. He would later move to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and serve three deployments in Afghanistan before leaving the Marines in 2015.

“It was time to go to school and begin the next chapter of my life,” he said.
Newly married and living in the East County, McAllister said Cuyamaca College was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to study computer science, I wanted to start at a community college, Cuyamaca was close to my home, they have a computer science program, OK, I’ll go here.”

“But what I found here,” McAllister said, “was a lot more than what I expected. The student body here, the faculty here, have been nothing but helpful. The quality of instruction is incredible. I hadn’t taken a math class in more than 13 years, but I assessed into pre-calculus. I was worried because a lot of core competencies in algebra and geometry just weren’t established. I was entirely unfamiliar with them. But the professor was wonderful. He made everything easy to understand and worked with me to make sure I would succeed. I ended up getting an A in the class.”

He’s been getting A’s in his classes since.

“His performance in my class was exceptional,” said Thomas Volkman, an adjunct faculty member in the Computer Science Department. “He was always well prepared and asked very thorough questions intended to expand his knowledge of the course material. Above being an exceptional student, I often noticed James helping other students in the class.”

McAllister, who has already secured a certificate in computer programming, is due to earn his associate degree in university studies this spring. He plans on transferring to San Diego State University – where his wife, also a former Marine, is earning her master’s degree in social work – this coming fall en route to a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“I absolutely love it here,” he said of Cuyamaca College. “I couldn’t have asked for a better experience after leaving the Marine Corps.”

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