St. Petersburg College student Juan Otazu sums up the past decade of his life with three words – passion, persistence and possibilities.
More than 10 years ago, Otazu, 51, started on his path to obtaining a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Those three words describe how, despite a variety of responsibilities and detours including military deployment to Central and South America, he finally finds himself days away from receiving his long-awaited diploma.
Those “three Ps” will be part of the message Otazu plans to share with fellow graduates and others at SPC’s upcoming graduation ceremony. He will be a commencement speaker at the July 21 event.
“You have to believe in yourself and anything is possible,” said Otazu. “If you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to imagine the light.”
“I had to, while on active duty, fit in part-time jobs and education and my active duty commitment,” Otazu said.
Otazu served in the U.S Air Force for 24 years before retiring in 2011 as a master sergeant. Most recently he was deployed for about six months as part of Continuing Promise, a joint armed forces and multinational humanitarian mission to Latin America and the Caribbean. The mission provided medical, dental, veterinary and engineering assistance to several nations, according to military news reports. The deployment fell in the middle of his latest efforts to continue his education in the medical field, delaying his upcoming graduation by more than a year.
Otazu began his work toward a medical degree when he first enrolled at SPC about 11 years ago. But he wasn’t able to continue because the class schedule conflicted with his work on active duty at MacDill Air Force Base. Eventually he was able to attend classes at other institutions to become a licensed practical nurse. By the fall of 2009, he was back at SPC and working toward his bachelor’s degree in nursing. However, the following year he learned he would be deployed to Central and South America in countries including Haiti and Colombia.
Once he returned, Otazu picked up his studies and continued to plug away at his course work. In class, he’s been described as an “informal leader” on projects. Even when he’s been busy juggling work, family and school, Otazu said he always tries to make attending classes enjoyable as part of his commitment to getting his degree.
Although his career in the military held up his progress in school, Otazu also credited his time in the service for helping prepare him for the next phase of his life. Much of his work in the military involved medical-related duties, such as serving as a dental clinic superintendent where he managed enlisted and civilian staff at MacDill.
Beyond medical experience, Otazu said the military prepared him for a variety of challenges that face people in the workforce, from managing other people and conflict resolution to public speaking. “All of that, it will definitely carry over into your next career once you retire or decide to go into the civilian world,” he said.
Otazu now will become the first person in his family to graduate from college. His younger sister, he said, often asks him how he did it. He hopes his commitment to his school work and career goals help encourage others both older and younger to follow their own dreams. And, once they do that, get a plan and be ready to adjust to cope to whatever surprises come your way.
“I would say you have to create a vision and dream of that vision,” he said.