A day in the life of a military career professional

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Fabiola Castro at volleyball practice

Fabiola Castro shares how volleyball led her on an unexpected path to the Army — and how GPS is helping her achieve her career goals

Teacher Merry Pratt and Fabiola Castro

Fabiola Castro ’23, of Salinas, California, never intended to go to West Point. 

“The only thing I wanted as a high school student was to play volleyball at a Division 1 school in California — I was actually already verbally committed to San Jose State,” Castro explained. “I had no desire whatsoever to join the military but was recruited to play volleyball at West Point and seized the opportunity…eventually.”

Castro said she received numerous recruitment letters from West Point but hid them from her parents “because the ‘ARMY’ letterhead was scary.” Eventually, though, recruiters began calling, and she opted to come clean to her parents. Her parents advised her to seek advice from two of her most trusted high school teachers: Bill Scott, her coach, and Merry Pratt, another teacher. 

“These incredible individuals have become lifelong friends and remain two of the most influential people in my life to this day,” Castro explained. “Coach Scott is an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, and he took the time to help me understand what a great institution West Point was. He convinced me that, at the very least, I could enjoy a free trip with my parents for my official visit for the volleyball program.”

Fabiola Castro and Coach Bill Scott

Pratt was also a great source of information since, unbeknownst to Castro at the time, her father and husband graduated from West Point. Pratt helped Castro get a better idea of what life was like as a cadet, she added.

And once Castro had her official visit to the West Point campus, she fell in love with the university. She graduated from the school with a B.S. in management, with a focus in business and a minor in systems engineering.

“I am now in my 11th year of service and finally embarking on my dream. I can definitely see myself serving 20 years and currently plan to do just that,” Castro said. 

So what brought Castro to the halls of UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS)? In this Q&A, Castro explains how she found out about the school’s Master of Advanced Studies in International Affairs (MAS-IA) program, which is designed for mid-career professionals — and how her training at GPS is helping her reach her dream job. 

What drew you to UC San Diego and to GPS to get your MAS-IA degree? 

My goal when applying to graduate schools was to end up in California. I left home for college at 17 and had not lived here since. I love California and a large portion of my family still lives in Salinas, so being able to be close enough to visit frequently was very important to me. I had the opportunity to attend the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, which would have literally had me living back at home, but that was just too close and might have been more distracting than beneficial. Growing up, my dream was to go to Stanford, but when comparing the two programs, it was obvious that the MAS-IA program at GPS was a much better fit for what I would be doing in my future career in the Army.

What are your regional focus and career track, and why did you choose those?

I am an Army foreign area officer (FAO) with a regional focus in Latin America, so the International Relations career track with the Latin America focus within the MAS-IA degree is perfect. My dream since my first year at West Point was to become a FAO in Latin America. My mother was born in Mexico and my father in Honduras, and I visited family in both countries a lot growing up. I love my culture and find the region beautiful, so it was a no-brainer when deciding my area of concentration.

What’s been your favorite class so far and why?

In the fall quarter, my favorite class was Economic Diplomacy, taught by professor James Lambright. He was an amazing instructor with a very impressive resume. He has worked some really fascinating jobs: chairman and president of the U.S. Export Import Bank, Chief Investment Officer for the U.S. Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, and senior vice president of corporate development at Sempra Energy. His class was very interactive and more discussion than lecture-based, which allowed us students to really engage with each other.

During winter quarter, my favorite class was Current Issues in U.S.-Latin American Relations, taught by professor emeritus Richard Feinberg — another professor with a remarkable career. He has worked in the White House under the Clinton Administration as an inter-Americas adviser and continues to play a significant role in Latin American relations through his continual contributions to the Summit of the Americas program. The stories he shared about his international travels and encounters have been my favorite. I will undoubtedly be better prepared for my work as a FAO thanks to Professor Feinberg.

What advice do you have for students admitted to the MAS-IA program?

Take the time to get to know your classmates and professors. The MAS-IA program has a lot of mid-career professionals that have had incredible success in the civilian, military, government and foreign sectors and have had some amazing experiences. Same goes for the professors — the quality of the professors that GPS has is outstanding. I have learned as much, if not more, from the experiences my classmates and professors have shared as I have from the curriculum. There is just such a wealth of knowledge at GPS.

Is there a facet of the program that has been most challenging? What is it, and why?

The night classes! Kidding, sort of. I am more of a morning person (thanks, Army!) and like to be in bed winding down by 8:30 p.m. — I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s my jam. Since the program has mostly part-time students, they accommodate them by holding several classes from 6:30-9:30 p.m.…well into my bedtime. It has helped that most of my classes didn’t start until after noon, so that took an adjustment but has been very nice.

Amid your rigorous academic schedule, what steps do you take to strike a work/life balance?

I fly home to Salinas at least once a month. I am very close with my family, and they keep me grounded for sure. I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend school in San Diego where I have the luxury of going home to spend time with family so often. Besides that, volleyball keeps me pretty busy with two to three tournaments a month.

Tell me about some of your interests outside of school.

I lived in Hawaii for five years, Rio de Janeiro for one, and now San Diego, and I can say without a doubt that I am definitely a beach and outdoor activities girl. I love beach volleyball, hiking, running, camping and all water activities.

Are you involved in any GPS/UC San Diego student groups?

I play on the UC San Diego Women’s Club Volleyball team. Being able to play the sport that I am so passionate about while living in beautiful San Diego has been an amazing experience. I am at least 10 years older than everyone on the team, so I am now the old lady I used to make fun of during West Point alumni games. Life comes at you so fast! But I have loved every minute of it. Anytime I get to play volleyball is time well spent.

After graduation, what will you be doing?

I embark on my first foreign area assignment in October. I am heading to Honduras and will be serving as the operations officer for the Security Cooperation Office at the U.S. Embassy there. I am half Honduran and it has been my dream to serve in this particular location for 15 years now, so to see it coming to fruition has been surreal. I get to be close to my grandparents and other family in my fatherland while representing the U.S. It really doesn’t get better than that.

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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