photo: Mayra Alemar Abreu

Alejandro Abreu during a trip to Rome with his mother several years ago.


I learned early that life can be cruel, beautiful, fragile—and fleeting.

For three-and-half years before I was 10, my family was homeless, constantly moving among New York City shelters. But in that dark period, I also remember beauty. I remember catching snowflakes at night and believing that I could see each unique design. I remember my parents' hustle as they tried to improve our situation, showing us a kind of love that made my two siblings and me incredibly resilient and grateful. My early life experiences created the foundation for what became my mantra—adapt, overcome and thrive.

When I was 12 years old, the course of my life shifted. Prep for Prep, a New York nonprofit that helps place promising students of color in rigorous academic environments, offered me the chance to attend St. Mark's School, a boarding school in Massachusetts. My father, a first-generation immigrant, said this was my shot and I shouldn't be afraid. Leaving the world of New York City to live in suburban Massachusetts ignited my sense of adventure—I wanted more.

For college, I wanted to continue stretching my horizons and move west. I found Case Western Reserve. It fit my college hit list: high-tech, in a large city, low student-teacher ratio and generous scholarships and financial aid. Stepping off the RTA and walking to Fribley Commons for orientation, I knew I'd have to adapt again. But choosing the challenge gave me an advantage.

I wanted to design video games and thought computer science would make for an exciting, comfortable career. But my English 150 instructor, Michelle Martello, exposed me to another world. Under her guidance, I began to see English as more than old stories and plays written by long-dead authors and poets. I saw it as an outlet for raw emotion—happiness, frustration, desire, fear. But when that first semester ended, I felt adrift. I had lost my interest in computer science and began to focus more on my social life than school.

Just as my sophomore year began, terrorists struck the World Trade Center. I spent Sept. 11, 2001 watching the towers collapse repeatedly—all day. For a long time, I was numb, then angry, then sad, then resolved. At the end of that school year, I left Case Western Reserve and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a cavalry scout—pledging to fight for my country, to avenge the dead, to free the oppressed, to make myself feel better, to give my life purpose. I'll never know all of the reasons I joined, but it felt right.

I was deployed to Iraq. It was the hardest time of my life. But I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I was forced to adapt—to being a soldier, to routine and structure, to adversity and the voluntary relinquishment of personal freedom. But I overcame, and the Army gave me much more in return—purpose, brotherly love, responsibility and personal courage. Then there is the beauty I found. It was a year of extended reconnaissance missions, patrols checking for explosive devices and convoy escorts. I try not to remember the danger, the oppressive heat, portable toilets or sand fleas. Instead, I recall the companionship of my fellow troopers and swapping stories on cool desert nights—and I treasure those memories.

I returned to campus in 2007 to finish my degree. Now, I had the courage to forge my own path as an English major. Maybe I'd teach, maybe I'd practice law. Right then, I wanted to enjoy myself. I devoured stories and got lost in fictional worlds, the past, immigrant adventures—what was, and what was possible. I had never earned better grades, but it wasn't easy. I struggled to adapt back to civilian life as the old kid in class, and wrestled with the guilt of leaving my brothers-in-arms still fighting the war.

Luckily, the university provided me with amazing mentors, advisers, counselors and friends. My professors—Chris Flint, Athena Vrettos, Bill Siebenschuh, Judith Oster, Mary Grimm—saved me. My creative writing class with Mary Grimm became therapy. I was able to explore the darkness that my Army experience left me with—fear of the cruelty and the bloodthirst of war. My teachers helped me overcome my inner struggle and find some measure of peace. With their support, I graduated and then earned a law degree from The Ohio State University. Spurred by my need to improve the lives of others, I returned to federal service—this time as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Soon, I'll return to Cleveland as an assistant U.S. attorney, serving a community that has already done so much for me.

Life is short and I want to enjoy it. I find happiness in knowing that I am trying to do good with my life. I now see adapting as being flexible enough to take what comes and find the beauty—the silver lining of life. Love, faith, hard work and the kindness of others raised that little boy playing outside the homeless shelter out of poverty and into a position where he can pay it forward. I plan on doing just that.

Alejandro Abreu, the middle child of Dominican immigrants, attended the university from 2000-2002 and 2007-2009. He is married to Erin Bradley Abreu and has been splitting his time between Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C.