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Dog Days & Debt-Free Degrees: Persistence Pays for Marine Corps Vet

“In my immediate family, I’m going to be the first one to ever graduate from college...If I could give any advice, it’s don’t give up. It feels amazing when you finish.”
Alexandria Leal

If there’s one thing Corporal Alexandria Leal has learned from her K-9 partner Cezar, a crime-busting German Shepard, it’s tenacity.

Whether serving in the line of duty – or going for her college degree – Leal is always sure to channel Cezar’s most incisive piece of canine wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to bare your teeth.”

An 11-year Marine Corps veteran with three Iraq tours under her belt, Leal is no stranger to determination. She’d parlay that calm confidence into a career as a Mission police officer, doggedly serving her community alongside her K-9 partner. And this winter, after a decade of chipping away at her studies, Leal will finally graduate with a hard-won Associate in Law Enforcement.

“I’m excited,” beams Leal. “It’s been 10 years coming.”

But the persistent veteran is not resting on her laurels. Shortly after graduation, she’ll get straight to work in South Texas College’s Bachelor in Organizational Leadership program.

“In my immediate family, I’m going to be the first one to ever graduate from college,” says the cadet with the can-do attitude.

Leal’s story started in the Service as a fueler, working for the “Exxon of the Marine Corps.” The recruit kept missions on the move by managing fuel and support equipment crucial for aircraft, tanks and boats.

In Iraq, she concentrated on convoy security, yet after volunteering for her third deployment, Leal realized she missed her family – particularly her young nieces and parents. By 2009, it was finally time to come home to the Valley after more than a decade of dedication to her country. Says Leal, “It gave me more than I gave it. Everything I have in life stemmed from my time in the military.”

Qualified by her experience and bolstered by encouragement from her police officer brother, she managed to identify her ideal career in short order.

“I kind of fell into the job,” says Leal. Her sister-in-law introduced her to the police chief, and he gave her the chance she’d been hoping for: “I got out of the Marine Corps, and two weeks later, I started the police academy.”

A highlight of Leal’s time on the force has been working with the K-9 unit and her partner, Cezar. At an intimidating 90 pounds, the German Shepard was a very aggressive dog that several handlers had failed to tame.

“He was actually on his last chance with me and on the verge of being put down,” says Leal, who refused to give up on the pugnacious pup. Her fool-proof dog training secret? Always having a pocket full of bacon to encourage her K-9 companion to comply. With time and training, the relationship grew, and Leal found that working with Cezar was soothing after returning home from a war zone: “I was the only handler that he never bit.”

The Corporal remembers well a drug bust in 2015 when Cezar saved the day. On a search, Cezar sat in front of a barn and stared at the locked door, absolutely refusing to budge. When officers brought equipment to force an entry, Leal started sweating. What if her partner had been mistaken?

But she needn’t have worried. Cezar’s super-sharp sense of smell sussed out what reporters called a “smorgasbord” of marijuana, along with a cache of meth, cocaine, 10,000 prescription pills, over $25,000 in cash, and two stolen weapons.

“I’ve had bigger busts in the past, but this one was so meaningful due to the fact that the guy was slick for years and never got caught,” remembers Leal. “Cezar was the deciding factor, and I was so proud of him.”

The crime-fighting canine passed away in 2019, after spending his final days with his devoted handler. “The unit was empty, and my best friend wasn’t there anymore,” remembers Leal. She is proud now to supervise the K-9 unit, offering support to officers and their “super-smart” canine partners.

One thing Cezar was known for was his bite: when immobilizing a dangerous, armed suspect, he would not let go. It’s the kind of grit that inspired Leal to never give up on her dreams, no matter the challenges… even when it came to particularly hard math classes. It helped that her boss – Police Chief Robert Dominguez – and her father never stopped encouraging her to return to school.

Though she didn’t consider herself to be college material, Leal knew it was time to further her career. Luckily for the field-tested officer, her police academy training counted toward STC credit, so by the time she enrolled, she was already halfway through her requirements. And thanks to her military benefits, tuition would be the one aspect of college that wouldn’t be challenging.

“Hey, you’re paying me to get educated, and I’m going to make more money at my work,” says Leal, who applied her GI Bill benefits to her South Texas College program. “It’s free money, dude. And then, you’re getting educated. You can’t beat it!”

For Leal, South Texas College’s reputation as a supportive, veteran-friendly institution preceded it. So, when she met a warm welcome on her first trip to the Office of Student Veteran Affairs, it was hardly a surprise.

“The VA department at STC is spot on,” says Leal. “They are awesome.”

In fact, STC has been awarded the gold for Military Friendly, ranking in the top 10 schools nationwide in veteran service. The College is renowned for providing open-door access and high-touch support for veterans, with custom services ranging from priority registration to waived admission application fees and special military scholarships.

For Leal, there is only one thing better than the fantastic veteran support she receives at STC: the courses themselves. “A lot of these classes have situational case studies, and it’s really good to further your career,” says the December grad. “It really expands your mind on how to do the job.”

College wasn’t easy, but the officer was determined to tackle her courses one bite at a time. While math represented both her biggest struggle and proudest achievement, her schedule also presented a challenge. Obligated to take a graveyard shift every three months, Leal would leave work at six in the morning, only to be due at school by 10 a.m. So, when she found the flexibility to persist through STC’s distance learning offerings, she never looked back.

“I love online school,” says the grad-to-be. “When I have my days off, I can work on my homework on my own. It’s perfect.”

That’s why Leal is ultra-excited not just to graduate but also to keep on being a Jaguar. “I’m a supervisor, and I want to expand my mind,” says Leal, who can’t wait for the online Bachelor in Organizational Leadership program this spring. “In that bachelor’s degree program, it will teach me as a leader.”

As someone who has seen it all, Leal knows that there is nowhere else she would rather be than STC. “I like the way the online courses are set up,” she says. “The school feels like home.”

Down the road, Leal hopes to put her real-world experience as a police officer to work as a criminal lawyer. Earning her bachelor’s is the next step on her journey to law school, but for right now, she’s earned a celebration.

“If I could give any advice, it’s don’t give up,” says Leal. “It feels amazing when you finish.”