At first glance, James Tran’s journey prior to entering nursing school may seem a world away from his new career. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps straight out of high school and, after a number of stops along the way, found himself patrolling the streets of Northern California as a police officer. But a deeper look reveals a common thread: the desire to help and serve others.
Now Tran, 34, who graduates next week with a master’s degree from UCLA, will fulfill a longtime ambition, joining more than 200 classmates, as well as several family members, in the nursing profession. It was, he admits, a long road.
As a high school student in Fremont, California, Tran lacked motivation, doing the minimum classwork required to stay on the school’s soccer team and having no clear eye on the future. But then 9/11 happened. “I watched first responders and average citizens risking their lives to help others at Ground Zero,” he said.
Tran wanted to help too. He decided to serve his country and see the world by joining the military, and at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Marines. Following boot camp and combat training, he was sent to aviation school, where he trained as an aircraft mechanic. His desire to travel was temporarily stymied when he was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, but he eventually had two deployments during his five-year service, to Japan and South Korea.
“It was eye-opening to meet people and be exposed to a new culture. It improved my interpersonal skills,” said Tran, who had the opportunity to interact with members of the South Korean air force and marines. There was also tension. “South Korea was armed to the teeth, and we knew we were in a potential war zone.”
When his stint ended, Tran chose not to reenlist. Desiring a better education, he enrolled in community college, unsure of how he’d do. But he found that the discipline he’d gained over his half-decade in the military served him well.
Still unsure of his career path, he considered transferring to California State University, East Bay, as a kinesiology major, thinking he might become a physical education teacher. His younger sisters had been accepted to UC Davis, so he ultimately decided to apply there, as well as to UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley. To his surprise, he was accepted to all three. He chose Berkeley.
“I never imagined I’d go to Berkeley,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life.”
As a member of the Cal Veterans Club, Tran feared he might face negativity on a campus long known for its protests and radical activities. But the veterans, he said, “got a lot of love” from the university community.
It was at Berkeley that he first learned about the UCLA School of Nursing’s masters entry clinical nurse program, or MECN, which offers a master’s degree to students who have earned a bachelor’s in another discipline. It seemed like an interesting possibility. He printed out the information and held on to it.
When he graduated from Cal with a degree in public health, Tran began working as an EMT, transporting patients between health care facilities. The experience gave him a close-up view of nursing. “I worked with all the hospitals in the area, and I met a lot of nurses and hospital personnel,” he said. “If we were doing a critical care transport, there would be a nurse on board with us.”
He remembers one Christmas Eve when he picked up a patient who had been shot in the back during a drive-by shooting. “It was exciting and nerve-wracking,” he said. “When we brought him in and saw the hospital staff start to work on him, I wished that I could have done more for him too.”
Fate seemed to be steering Tran towards nursing, but he took one final detour. He had previously applied and been accepted to a regional police academy. He decided to attend and, in 2015, took a position with the police department in the city of Pleasanton, California. Working patrol at night, he dealt with fights, domestic violence and a host of other issues. He recalls that with homeless drug users, his only option, regretfully, was to take them to jail.
“I didn’t want to just put handcuffs on them,” he said. “I wanted to get them help.”
At the time, he was traveling as much as he could to Los Angeles to be with his grandmother, who had lung cancer. Seeing how his sister and aunt, both nurses, helped with his grandmother’s end-of-life care made clear to him what he’d been pondering for a while — he wanted to become a nurse. He pulled out the papers he’d saved years before about UCLA. He was ready to apply.
Tran was accepted to the School of Nursing’s MECN program and shared the news with his grandmother shortly before she passed away. Nursing school, he said, “has been an adventure. My cohort is wonderful. Every person is a stellar student and stellar human being. I’m inspired every day by them, my patients and other nurses.”
Tran particularly likes working with veterans and their families. “I can tell who’s a veteran. When I ask them and they say they are, it makes my day. And they seem to like that I’m a veteran,” he said.
Tran’s military and police background help him think quickly on his feet, he says, and he likes the challenge of not knowing what’s on the other side of the door when he enters a new patient’s room.
He’s not yet sure what area of nursing he’d like to go into — he’s enjoyed every rotation. But as he’s done in the past, Tran is willing to follow his new path wherever it takes him.