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Marine Veteran, Refugee Heads to Johns Hopkins University

A Liberian refugee and Marine Corps veteran recounts her story.

From a young girl growing up in war-torn Liberia to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, 32-year-old Sharon Patray's journey has been a remarkable one.

“It's a dream," said Patray. "Going to John Hopkins has been my dream since I started.”

Patray was born in Liberia during the country's civil war in the 90s.  She said the fighting left many dead. With the port blocked, there was little food. Her family experienced severe hunger. 

“I remember that when my mom was saying we need to get out of here,” Patray recalled. 

Her family fled to Ghana and was forced to live in a refugee camp. She spent time there when she was not at a nearby boarding school. 

At 15, her family was able to move to the U.S. 

But for Patray, the thought of leaving was overwhelming. 

"All my friends are here, everything I know is here,” she remembered thinking.

Patray quickly realized that the move would be life changing.

In the U.S., Patray graduated high school and was offered a full ride scholarship to study science. However, she could not accept because she was not a U.S. citizen. 

Patray learned from a friend, who was joining the military, that she could become a citizen and receive money through the G.I. bill to attend school. 

"Maybe I can do that," she thought. 

Patray joined the U.S. Marine Corps and serve eight years. She deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, where she provided security for the 2005 election - something she is particularly proud of. 

"They had the opportunity for their voice to be heard," she said. It was especially poignant for her because she grew up under a dictatorship. As she served, she hoped for the same for the people of her home country of Liberia: free and fair elections. 

Patray finished out her Marine career at Camp Pendleton. The lessons from the Corps, she says, still guide her today.

“Even when I struggle I have to back up and attack in a different direction, that drive to keep going forward has pretty much stayed with me,” Patray said.

She says she was inspired by the Marines who served beside her, many of whom were injured, to pursue her dreams in medical research.

Through various programs, like the Bridges to the Future Program, which connects students from community colleges to California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM, Patray was able to work alongside many mentors.

On May 20, Patray will graduate from CSUSM with a degree in biochemistry. In the fall, she will be heading to Baltimore to study at John Hopkins. 

As for the her road to success, Patray says it was scary at times.  

“But at the end, I wouldn't change anything, I'm glad I took this journey,” she said. 

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