Sitting at Starbucks and facing Main Beach, Kevin Staight couldn't be farther from the Middle East, a region he's called home off and on for the last eight years.
On June 12, the 28-year-old Laguna native donned a cap and gown as the first graduate to earn a degree in Arabic from UC San Diego. In the fall, he plans to study international business in New York University's MBA program.
But he didn't care much for school while growing up in Laguna. Straight graduated from Laguna Beach High in 2000 with a 2.9 GPA and a lack of confidence after college rejections filled his mailbox.
"I wanted to do something important," he said.
That purpose came a year later when two planes barreled into two towers in New York City. Then President George W. Bush announced war.
He joined the Marine Corps in 2002 and was on active duty for four years, where he achieved the rank of sergeant. He was deployed to Iraq twice — five months in 2004 and seven months in 2005 — and fought in Fallujah.
Staight's tone was calm and unwavering as he talked about the operation.
On a typical day, Staight would go on patrol in Iraqi cities, searching homes for insurgents or weaponry.
"I can remember the first time I was in Fallujah and we got into a situation," he said.
Bombs were found in a home that were similar to some used to blow up a convoy. The Marines were taking one of the occupants in for questioning.
"The wives and children were crying," Straight said. "I couldn't communicate what was happening."
With only a six-hour culture seminar prior to deployment, Staight said he and his fellow Marines weren't equipped to communicate with the Iraqis. He decided to change that.
"It dehumanizes the Iraqis so that we don't see them as people," Straight said. "It works in the other way, too. We're dehumanized as well. They don't see us as people. When the Marines come in, they just see us as this entity that maybe just destroys or kills."
While his comrades partied at night, Staight stayed up to teach himself Arabic. Although he's fluent now, it wasn't easy at first. In a short amount of time he was called up for extra missions and was asked to translate.
Staight said the occupation's mission was to achieve peace and stability, which is hard to do if the Iraqis view Marines as destructive.
"The only way to win is to understand them on a cultural level and on a humanistic level," he said.
When he came back to California, he majored in linguistics with a language specialization in Arabic and management science at UCSD. He also took an intensive course in Arabic at UCLA.
Because UCSD didn't offer the upper-division classes available for a major in Arabic, he studied in Egypt and Syria. The time abroad not only helped him master the language, but also understand where his focus was taking him.
"I was really confronted by the economic conditions in Egypt," he said. "Along with learning Arabic and Arabic culture, I thought the No. 1 thing I could do to help build ties was to study economics."
At the University of Damascus, he took economics classes in Arabic. He also volunteered with Junior Chambers International in Syria, a group of young business professionals, to create awareness about jobs, internships and other opportunities for young people.
"I do a lot of volunteer work, but I think to make significant changes it has to be a viable economic solution," he said.
After graduating from NYU, he would like to work toward creating sustainable economies for the Middle East and building positive relationships between the Middle East and the U.S.
Straight said he wants to do this through promoting Middle Eastern business here, helping American companies integrate over there, and finding mutually profitable and beneficial alternatives.
"Living here is kind of living in a bubble," Staight said about Laguna. "It wasn't until I joined the Marine Corps that all of a sudden I was moving to different places, experiencing all these different cultures that opened my eyes to the larger world. Now I want more of that."