James Tran’s path prior to entering nursing school might at first glance seem unrelated to his new career. He served as an aircraft mechanic in the U.S.  Marine Corps and as a police officer in the northern California town of Pleasanton. But a deeper look reveals a common thread of helping others. 

As a high school student, James lacked motivation, doing the minimum required to stay on the school’s soccer team. But then 9/11 happened. “I watched first responders and average citizens risking their lives to help others at Ground Zero,” said James. He wanted to help, too.

It was then James decided to serve his country — and see the world.  At the age of 17, James enlisted in the Marine Corps. Once he completed basic and combat training, he landed in aviation school to become an aircraft mechanic.   

James had two deployments during his five year service with the Marine Corps, to Japan and South Korea.  “It was eye-opening to meet people and be exposed to a new culture.  It improved my interpersonal skills,” he says, noting that he met members of the South Korean  Air Force and Marines. 

There was also tension. “South Korea was armed to the teeth and we knew we were in a potential war zone.” 

When his five year stint ended, James chose not to reenlist. He wanted to get a better education.  He enrolled in community college, unsure of how he’d do. But the discipline he gained from the military served him well. 

He considered transferring to Cal State East Bay as a kinesiology major, thinking he might become a physical education teacher. His sisters had been accepted to UC Davis, so he decided to apply there, as well as UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley. To his surprise, he was accepted to all three. He chose Berkeley.

 “I never imagined I’d go to Berkeley,” he says. “It was the best experience of my life.” As part of the Cal Veteran’s Club, James thought he might face negativity in a university known for its pacifist activities. But the veterans, he says, “got a lot of love” from the university community.

While at Berkeley, James came across information for the UCLA School of Nursing’s MECN program.  He printed out the information and held on to it.

James graduated with a degree in public health and began working as an EMT doing inter-facility transportation. The experience gave him a close-up view of nursing. “I worked with all the hospitals in the area and I met a lot of nurses and hospital personnel.  If we were doing a critical care transport, there would be a nurse on board with us.” 

One Christmas Eve, he picked up a patient who had been shot in the back in a drive-by shooting. “It was exciting and nerve wracking,” he says. “When we brought him in and saw the hospital staff start to work on him, I wished I could have done more for him, too.”

His path seemed to be steering James towards nursing, but he took one final detour. He had previously applied and been accepted to a regional police academy. He decided to attend the academy and afterwards took a position with the City of Pleasanton Police Department. Working patrol at night, he saw fights and domestic violence. Dealing with homeless drug users, his only option was to take them to jail. “I didn’t want to just put handcuffs on them; I wanted to get them help,” he says. 

James was spending as much time as he could in Los Angeles to see his grandmother, who had lung cancer. Seeing how his sister and aunt, both nurses, helped with his grandmother’s end-of-life care made him realize he wanted to become a nurse.

That’s when he decided to apply to the UCLA School of Nursing.  James was accepted into the MECN program and shared the news with his grandmother shortly before she passed away.

Nursing school, he says, “has been an adventure. My cohort is wonderful. Every person is a stellar student and stellar human being.  I’m inspired every day by them, my patients and other nurses.” 

James particularly likes working with veterans and their family members. “I can tell who’s a veteran. When I ask them and they say they are, it makes my day.  And they seem to like that I’m a veteran.” 

His military and police background help him think quickly on his feet, and he likes the challenge of not knowing what’s on the other side of the door when he enters a new patient’s room. 

He’s not sure what area of nursing he’d like to go into – he’s enjoyed every rotation. As he’s done in the past, James is willing to follow his new path wherever it takes him.