Like any good intern, Francisco A. Joaquin took copious notes during a seminar on how to get a job. Build a network. Scrub your social-media presence. Prepare for interview questions. Dress the part.
Sitting in a windowless conference room near Union Station, Joaquin dressed the part that July day: tan slacks, button-down shirt, red lanyard. Like the two dozen interns sitting around him — and the thousands of other students who pour into Washington every summer — Joaquin traveled a long way for this opportunity.
Unlike his counterparts, Joaquin put on reading glasses to study the papers in front of him. He qualified for AARP membership more than a decade ago. He has already retired once. And he has a new grandbaby — his fifth — coming this fall.
“Sometimes it is at the back of my head that I’m the youngest in the group,” the 63-year-old says with a smile. “But it’s the opposite, you know.”
No one tracks such social markers as the oldest intern in Washington, but Joaquin — a slim, energetic man with close-cropped hair graying at the temples — is surely one of the most senior. He is spending the summer in the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, assisting vets, many of them low-income.
The fifth of six siblings, Joaquin was born in the Philippines in 1955. His mother was a homemaker; his father worked as a bartender. Neither had the chance to stay in school past the sixth grade.
“My mother’s dream was that all of us should have an education,” Joaquin recalls. “I educated myself to make sure that I have both the knowledge and education that my parents didn’t have.”
Joaquin, who goes by his nickname, Jay, won a scholarship to study business administration as an undergraduate in Manila. And after passing an entrance exam, he was granted admission to a law school there.
Joaquin doesn’t consider himself advanced academically; he embodies Woody Allen’s maxim that 80 percent of success is just showing up. “You could count on my fingers my absences through my school life. . . . My mind-set is that I don’t want to miss any learnings or lessons. I just want to make sure I’m in that classroom.”
In 1986, after just a couple years as a lawyer in the Philippines, Joaquin married an American missionary and followed her back to the United States. They landed in San Diego, where Joaquin learned that his law degree wouldn’t automatically be accepted by the California bar. Feeling pressure to earn an income, he joined the Navy.
Joaquin thought he might stay in the Navy for eight years, 16 at the most. He served for 24 years. He was posted twice in Japan and served 49 months aboard the USS Constellation. The separation from family is hard on sailors. His first marriage ended childless and in divorce. So did his second and third.
In Japan, he met a fellow Filipino native with two children . She and Joaquin married in 1992 and soon added three more children to their family.
As the years ticked by, Joaquin could see the bright light of a military retirement growing stronger, so he stayed enlisted. Plus, he was still learning, becoming an expert on logistics and supply chains. In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq, where he worked with a team of civilian contractors to install counter-IED devices.
When he came back, he started to think about retirement. He spent a year enrolled part time at California Western School of Law to get a master’s in comparative law. And in 2010, at age 55, Joaquin retired as a chief petty officer.
He thought he might finally be in a position to restart his law career but failed the California bar exam, which is known for its difficulty. “One year is not enough time to prepare,” he said. So he took other jobs.
But his monthly mortgage payment kept rising, so last summer Joaquin and his wife, Milagros, decided to leave San Diego for Tucson. A week after they arrived, he enrolled at a local community college.
“I was thinking, ‘Why not give another shot for law school?’ ” he recalls. “I already have the knowledge, and I’m not young, but I’m still capable of doing this if I try.” He got straight A’s both semesters and was accepted into a University of Arizona advanced JD program that starts this fall.
In part, his motivation is to serve as an example to his kids and grandkids. “I want them to realize that education is ageless,” he says.
Joaquin’s internship came about after he attended a conference with his community college’s student veterans organization. There, he learned about the Washington Center’s veterans employment program in Washington and decided to apply. He was one of 25 candidates selected.
At the end of May, Joaquin flew to Washington to find a place where he and Milagros could live for the summer. (The Washington Center, a nonprofit that helps arrange internships, offers housing, but it isn’t set up for long-married grandparents.) With his military ID, he was able to secure an apartment at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.
Joaquin has spent the summer working four days a week inside a small room at the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs. (Every Friday, he attends career training at the Washington Center.) There are no pictures on the white walls, but the office is his. Over the past two months Joaquin has built a database, met with veterans who need assistance, facilitated meetings and manned the front desk when the receptionist stepped away. At night, rather than frequent happy hours like so many other interns, Joaquin goes home to his wife.
If it all works out — if he gets his JD and passes the Arizona bar exam — he hopes to spend much of his law career helping veterans.
And if it doesn’t work out, he’ll still be glad he tried. Every once in a while, he considers what his mother might think, if she could see him now, still in school at age 63.
“She would be very, very, very happy,” he says, voice catching. “Yes, she would.”
This Life is an occasional series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know of someone we might want to write about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.