Joining the military as an act of service and gratitude
UOPX alumna Dr. Sarah Maokosy overcame childhood adversity by joining the Army and going to college.
In honor of May’s Military Appreciation Month, University of Phoenix celebrates the achievements of alum Dr. Sarah Maokosy, who is an Army veteran, first-generation American, professor and role model in her community.
When Dr. Sarah Maokosy graduated high school, she surprised her parents by shaving her head and enlisting in the Army. She described herself at the time as a petite Asian girl, standing just over 5 feet and 115 pounds. She said her parents were scared for her and wanted to protect her from the violence of war. That’s something they were all-too-familiar with, as refugees from the Cambodian genocide, in which over 1.6 million perished over a span of four years in the 1970s1.
Dr. Maokosy cites America’s willingness to take in her traumatized family among the nearly 158,000 Cambodian refugees who found shelter here as one of the reasons she always felt drawn to serve others — first as a soldier and now as a professor and mentor for youth in her community in California’s Central Valley.
“If it wasn’t for my parents being able to come to America, I probably wouldn’t be able to be here now. It was part of my decision to join the Army. I always knew I wanted to give back to the country,” she said. “That is who I am. I love making a difference. I worry about others. I want to make an impact. I want to make sure whatever I do matters.”
Dr. Maokosy served four years in the Army, the last two of which she spent deployed in combat in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was right before she deployed that she learned she could enroll in college and start working toward a degree while she was an active service member. Today, she has five degrees, two of which are from University of Phoenix — a Master of Business Administration and a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership.
If it wasn’t for my parents being able to come to America, I probably wouldn’t be able to be here today. It was part of my decision to join the Army. I always knew I wanted to give back to my country for saving my family.
— Dr. Sarah Maokosy (DM, ’19)
“It was hard, it was difficult, but it helped me get through the day, every day in Iraq,” she said. “Working a 12-hour shift, going to the gym twice a day and then going to school is hard, but it gave me something else to do, rather than looking out the window and missing my family and friends and feeling depressed.”
Dr. Maokosy says it took discipline and excellent time management skills to be able to juggle it all,. These are just a couple of the skills she honed in the military that she said she uses every day. She adds that she also learned courage, resilience and a deep respect for this country and the people who serve it. While thankful for her experiences, there are some that will always haunt her.
“There were some bad things I experienced in Iraq that gave me PTSD, but I try not to dwell on that. I don’t regret my decision. It’s made me who I am today. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “The military is a part of me and it will always be a part of me.”
Today, Dr. Maokosy is a role model for her extended family and the larger SE Asian community in her hometown of Sanger, California. The city is in Fresno County, where 21% of the population lives in poverty2, and recent reports show nearly 80 percent of the population doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree3.
Dr. Maokosy said her childhood wasn’t easy, being one of eight children to two refugees who also struggled with untreated PTSD from their experiences in Cambodia. She said her family’s struggle is a common story among the SE Asian community in Fresno County. Being first-generation Americans meant having parents who don’t speak English well, who can’t help with homework or navigate the school system.
Dr. Maokosy said abuse was common in her community, and so were gangs. She was depressed and suicidal as a teenager, but the military offered her a way out.
“I could get away from the issues at home, I could get away from the gangs, I could get away from all of that violence,” she said. “So, I joined the military.”
Today, she’s a busy mom of five boys under 10, working as a professor at two local colleges and a local university. She now helps others overcome whatever barriers they may face in their own lives to find success, in whatever form that may take.
“I’m a champion for success for everyone,” she said. “I push others to succeed in whatever capacity that may be. If that means a certificate out of college, or finding a career or opening this business, whatever that success is for you, I’m going to push you to it, to motivate you to never give up.”
When people ask her whether they should go to college, she tells them a degree isn’t just a piece of paper — it opens so many other doors. Pursuing an education gives you a plan that pushes you forward so you can pursue your goals.