USC Gould Search

Army veteran, counterintelligence officer deepens expertise in defense with MSL
USC Gould School of Law

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

With 15 years of counterintelligence experience, John Esparza is well aware of the laws and regulations the government must adhere to, and he knew a deeper understanding of the law would be “very beneficial” to his career.

By Becca van Sambeck

As a counterintelligence special agent in the Army, online MSL student John Esparza was deployed to Iraq twice and stationed in Korea for a year. Following graduation, he hopes to tackle a new challenge outside of the military and government sector. (Photo: Courtesy of John Esparza)

In 2000, John Esparza was hit with disappointment when received the news he had not gained admission to USC to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

Now, more than two decades later, he is finally graduating from his dream school after completing the online Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program at the USC Gould School of Law.

“It’s a full circle moment, a lifelong journey completed 22 years later. I’ll truly be an alum, so it’s quite a goal to achieve for myself, a personal goal I had,” he told USC Online.

Following his initial rejection from USC, Esparza pursued higher education elsewhere, but he later pressed pause on his degree to join the Army as a counterintelligence special agent.

“I had a lot of great opportunities open up to me in the military. I was deployed to Iraq twice, and I was stationed in Korea for a year. When I got out in 2009, I stayed on the East Coast and got a job in Washington D.C. and worked in the defense contracting sector for a couple of years, and then I decided it was time to finish out my degree,” he explained.

Esparza went back to school full time at American University to fulfill a lifelong “calling”: film. In fact, he was even able to write and direct a short film that aired as part of the GI Film Festival in D.C.

To this day, film remains a passion for Esparza, but his experience in the defense sector was an important foundation for his future career goals.

After graduating from American University in 2012, Esparza actually had his first experience at USC, earning a Certificate in Homeland Security and Public Policy. He was soon hired as a counterintelligence officer by the U.S. Department of Defense, where he’s worked for the past nine years.

Still, Esparza felt his USC journey was not quite over.

“When I was looking to pursue a graduate degree, I always thought of USC as where I wanted to be. I saw there were degrees available in law, and especially with the Privacy Law and Cybersecurity Certificate, it made sense as that was very applicable to what I’ve been doing at work,” he explained.

Working in intelligence, Esparza is well aware of the laws and regulations the government must adhere to, and he knew a deeper understanding of the law would be “very beneficial” to his career.

Plus, he already had a brush with the university’s “amazing” professors, and the USC Gould program proved to be no different. (Although, when it comes to his absolute favorite aspect of USC, it’s supporting Trojan athletics, he laughed.)

Reflecting on his MSL coursework, Esparza noted “Business Organizations” as a particular program highlight, as he was able to immediately put the learnings to use at his current position.

“Just last week, I was attending a conference for work. ‘Business Organizations’ was probably one of my most challenging courses in the program, but having a good understanding of different business entities really came in handy at the conference when dealing or speaking with multiple vendors and companies, organizations, corporations,” he said.

Finding Balance with USC Gould’s Online MSL Program

For Esparza, pursuing his master’s degree meant time away from family — but with the support of his wife, he’s been able to set an example for his children on the importance of higher education. (Photo: Courtesy of John Esparza)

As a working professional and father of two young children, Esparza needed the flexibility of an online graduate program, and the MSL allowed him to successfully balance his classes and coursework with his responsibilities as a parent and full-time employee.

Esparza noted, however, that he would not have been able to complete the program without the support of his wife, who was fully on board with his higher education goals.

“I would talk to my wife about the potential graduate programs I was looking at, and she would always say, ‘Don’t just do it just for a degree, do it because you’re going to really enjoy the courses and it’s going to benefit you in the future.’ That’s great advice, and when I found the MSL program, I had her support,” he said.

Due to the fact that he was able to apply so much of what he was learning in the program to his day-to-day work, Esparza said it was easy to stay motivated, even though it meant losing some time with his family.

“But [my wife] was able to fill in for me, and it also served as a really good example for my kids: You can always go back to school, you can always learn more,” Esparza explained. “They’d see me studying, and they’re like, wow, ‘I can’t believe my dad is still studying at his age,’ so ultimately, it was a good example to set.”

With graduation, Esparza said his next steps are still a bit unclear, but a potential career change may be on the horizon, especially with what he’s learned from his time at USC Gould.

“I’m thinking about pursuing a career in the tech sector. I know this degree — and a lot of the folks that I’ve met, the [people] I’ve studied with and the [alumni] network — are going to benefit me in so many ways. Hopefully I’ll eventually pursue something beyond the government sector because I feel like I’ve fulfilled my service there, not only in the military, but in federal service as a civilian employee. I’m ready to move on to another journey, another challenge,” he mused.

Learn more about USC Gould’s online Master of Studies in Law program.

This article was originally published on USC Online.



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