Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography
During high school, Ethan Petta had a moment of reckoning. One of his best friends had recently died from an overdose, and he realized if he didn’t change, he’d have the same fate – or at least end up in prison.
“I got into trouble a lot when I was younger. I couldn’t find a direction for myself, so I ended up with the wrong crowds, the kinds of kids who racked up criminal records and did drugs, those were my people,” Petta said. “I realized I needed to engage in my life, I needed to be present, I needed to take control of the direction things were headed.
“I realized: I needed to kick my own a**.”
Both Petta’s father and grandfather were veterans, and that inspired the admitted non-conformist to join the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012. He excelled during bootcamp and combat training maintaining squad leader positions, and for the next four years, he worked as an aviation ordnance systems technician maintaining weapons systems for F/A-18s. But along the way, he said he encountered systemic racism as a multi-racial Asian American and the challenges that come with asking questions in a place where bucking the system is far from the norm.
“I realized I needed to engage in my life, I needed to be present, I needed to take control of the direction things were headed.”
Petta left the service in 2016 and began to work toward a degree in Information Technology and Systems at the University of Texas at Dallas. He had fallen in love with Colorado during previous trips to the state as a child and decided to finish up college at Colorado State University, where he’s slated to graduate in May with a B.S./B.A. in computer information systems.
He’s already practiced his skills through an internship with Science Applications International Corp., where he’s worked as a modeling and simulation engineer developing concepts of operation and analyzing data for small satellite architecture.
He’s anticipating starting a data engineer position with SAIC in the coming fall.
“That level of effort and challenge made me realize I’m capable of so much more,” Petta said. “I’ve always given myself a tough time, but exceeding my own expectations is such a liberating feeling.”
In their own words
Q. What experiences in your life or at CSU have required you to demonstrate courage?
Definitely the military, and not necessarily the physicality of it, but this mentality that was so unfortunately prevalent during my experience. Having to come to terms with racism, the fact that you’ll run into challenges that are just baked into the system, that was a soul-check for me as an 18-year-old kid.
No matter how much you want to fight it, sometimes you can’t change the foundations of a situation you find yourself in. The only thing you can really do is maintain that sense of determination and really bolster your will.
The real thing is coming to terms with the right takeaway, and how you can pry something beneficial from the situation. You have to try to learn from it, you can’t just allow others to take your sense of self-worth and identity. There’s an opportunity for transformation under circumstances like that, but you have to see things for what they are and what they can be.
It’s really up to you to think about how you can grow from difficult experiences.
Q. What was the most rewarding part of your CSU experience?
I would say it’s probably my adviser Cassie Shearholdt. When I was really digging into job searching – which is a big endeavor – there was a lot of anxiety and self-doubt, because I’m an adult learner.
I took a chance going into the Career Management Center, and they linked me up with Cassie. I was honest with her, told her my background, my insecurities about being an older individual getting into my career, and I think she really understood where I was coming from and was able to walk me through the process. She was able to remind me that I’m capable.
In my experience, it’s not as much about how CSU can make an impact as much as one individual. It’s that one person who can have an impact.
Q. What is your advice to incoming students at CSU?
There’s a lot of challenges, a lot of adversity. The world is significantly more complex than it was before, but I think you can do yourself a favor by figuring out who you are and what you stand for, and in doing so, you’ll have that one constant in a chaotic world.
You are that one constant point of reference as you get through life.
It’s something I had to figure out through being in the Marines. As a young child, I was lost, I didn’t know where I belonged, I didn’t know what it was that I was missing, and because of that, I didn’t understand who and what I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I put myself in different positions that I understood what I was missing, and coming to terms with who I was opened everything up to me.
Sometimes you have to admit that you’re standing in your own way.