Army paratrooper Robert Reyes took his last jump with the 82nd Airborne in 2018. Five months later, the former accountant turned lieutenant landed on the Haas campus as a full-time MBA student, diving deep into corporate finance.
It was a well thought out transition.
Robert, the son of immigrants from central Mexico, graduated from high school in northern Virginia. No one in his family had attended college before him, so he put off thoughts of college for a while. Instead he sold cars to support himself. He also pursued music, focusing on reggaeton – a blend of hip-hop and Jamaican dance-hall music – even opening for Grammy winning artist Pitbull.
Six months after graduating high school, a friend asked Robert to keep him company while signing up for classes at Northern Virginia Community College. There, his focus turned toward higher education and he didn’t look back. Later, he transferred to Virginia’s George Mason University, graduated with a degree in accounting, and ultimately landed a full-time position with a Big 4 accounting firm.
“My family was blue-collar,” says Robert. “My father was a brick mason and my mother a homemaker. So, I was happy to be invited into a white-collar profession. But I felt stuck in a cubicle without a clear roadmap toward my future.”
He was conducting an audit of a Federal Agency, when he met a colonel who’d been a paratrooper. “The stories about the things the colonel had done were inspiring. At the age of 25, I was craving excitement and was hungry for leadership. Accounting wasn’t giving me those avenues.”
And there was a third reason to join the Army.
Robert’s parents emigrated from Mexico to give their children the opportunity to excel in ways that weren’t possible back home. “I saw the poverty that my father had escaped, and it was clear to me that I was in a privileged position having been born in this country. So, it was with deep appreciation that I wanted to give back.”
It took three months of intense workouts to get into shape for bootcamp “and in a few months I was being screamed at by drill sergeants," he says. Assigned to the famed 82nd Airborne Division, Robert found the excitement he craved jumping out of planes and helicopters.
“I loved it,” he says. “It’s a little bit of panic before you jump. If you’re not scared, then something’s wrong with you because it’s not normal to jump out of a plane. It’s fear at first, then, once you jump, it’s exhilaration. There’s nothing but the sky and one minute of pure peace.”
Robert says in the Army he learned to be resilient mentally and physically. “And not just to trust,” he says, “but to know that you have to trust other people because you have a mission to deliver and you can’t do it by yourself.”
Excitement aside, Robert knew that he was not destined for a 20-year Army career.
“Accounting and the Army are two very different sides of a spectrum,” he says. “I wondered: how do I connect those two dots? I felt an MBA was the best way to amalgamate those two experiences.”
Of all the schools Robert looked at, Haas stood out as a place where the students were the warmest. “They were the most inviting, the most willing to provide a plethora of information over phone calls that lasted much longer than the ones at other schools,” he says. “That had the biggest impact. It felt like an environment where I could let my guard down for the first time. And that brought Haas to the top.”
It wasn’t an easy first year. In his second week at Haas he got a midnight call telling him that one of his best friends, a brother in arms, in the Army had been killed in Afghanistan. A few weeks later, he learned his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and ultimately had 6-months to live.
“It was a tough year,” says Robert. “But resilience helped me stay the course.”
And he’s passing a bit of that on as a mentor involved in Haas’ LIFT program, which he helped revive this year. Standing for leadership, inclusion, future opportunities and thrive, LIFT pairs undergraduate students of color with MBA program mentors.
“We’re there to support them academically and professionally,” says Robert. “Most importantly, we’re there to listen and provide empathy from someone who knows what they are going through. That and sharing our experiences of the real world – our mistakes and our successes. We like to say we’ll demonstrate that they can be what they can see.”
Robert, whose goal is to be a management consultant, says the most influential course he has taken so far has been “Lead Com,” or Leadership Communications.
“That’s where I learned to leverage my experiences and tap into vulnerability,” he says. “The military can be an anti-vulnerability environment. At times it can be transactional; you have a point to get across for the betterment of the mission. Coming here helped me understand who I am as a person. It’s one thing to know your story; it’s another thing to own it. My parents came here undocumented, eventually gaining their U.S. citizenship, and I’m here now – living their dream. This is my story.”