By Jonah Grinkewitz

Irv Antonio’s path to Old Dominion University was not traditional or easy. But after going through one of the most difficult experiences of his life, the University became a safe haven.

In 2021, Antonio was serving as an electronics technician in the U.S. Coast Guard at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut when he received orders to move to the military branch’s base in Portsmouth.

Before relocating, he decided to take a vacation to visit his brother in Washington, D.C. While they were walking in the city one night, two strangers mugged and beat them.

“The last thing I remember was throwing up my hands before getting hit,” Antonio said.

He woke up the next day in the hospital with a cracked skull and a head the “size of a balloon.” Doctors had to perform emergency surgery to drain blood and remove dead tissue from his skull.

His move to Portsmouth was delayed three months while he started on his long road to recovery. But when he got to Virginia, he suddenly found himself in a new place while dealing with a life-changing injury.

“It was probably one of the most miserable times, immediately (after) getting there,” Antonio said. “Everything and everyone was absolutely unfamiliar.”

It also became clear that because of the severity of his injury he would likely be medically separated from the military. His last day in the Coast Guard, coincidentally, will be this Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

“So being told that just kind of got my gears running again,” Antonio said. “And I started thinking, ‘What’s my next move?’”

He already had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish for the professions from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is his hometown. But he decided he wanted to pursue a new career path in healthcare.

Spending so much time in hospitals for his recovery and seeing the diversity of people in the medical field made him feel like he – the child of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants – could be a doctor one day.

Since he was going to be in Hampton Roads, he started looking at schools in the area and discovered ODU. The University’s special tuition rate for active-duty members, its Military Connection Center, which offers counseling services and peer advising, and its flexible class schedules made it a great choice for him.

So, he enrolled in fall 2022 to study biomedical sciences.

He quickly found students to bond with through the ODU campus volunteer group  Global Student Friendship, whose mission is to help international students transition to life in the U.S.

“It was the American students, too,” Antonio said. “A lot of them are first-, second-, third-generation immigrants, and even the ones who aren’t, have a good heart for service to others.”

He said that the flexibility of having online and evening classes allowed him to work and that ODU’s professors were very understanding of his medical situation while never making him feel less capable than his peers.

He also found an opportunity to aid his recovery by joining the ODURep theater production of “Macbeth.” His traumatic brain injury required him to see a speech therapist, and performing in the play helped him build confidence speaking again.

Antonio hopes to graduate in December 2024, then go to medical school. And despite the way his time in Virginia started, he is grateful for the experience he’s had at ODU.

“Having lived in every corner of the country through my service in the U.S. Coast Guard, I’ve often felt out of place,” he said. “ODU is different – it feels like home.”