Army Veteran, Wife, Mother, Teacher, and Student: Natalie Cantu MA ’24

The former staff sergeant has explored different cultures, enhanced her leadership skills, and embraced her Saint Mary’s experience. With a new master’s degree, she’s now embarked on a dual-language teaching career.

by Mike Janes, Office of Marketing & Communications | May 16, 2024

As a former military sergeant trained in law enforcement, Natalie Cantu MA ’24, née Aquino, is accustomed to being armed.

Now, however, she’s tossed the weapons aside and will soon be armed with something else altogether: a graduate degree from Saint Mary’s Kalmanovitz School of Education. On May 26, she’ll cross the commencement stage after earning a Master’s in Teaching, with a Bilingual Authorization in Spanish and a single-subject certificate in Social Studies. 

Her journey from Fresno to SMC graduate student was occasionally bumpy, yet filled with important experiences that shaped her future and positioned her for success. 

Cantu was raised by immigrant parents; her mother is from Colombia, and her father is from Mexico. None of her family members ever served in the military, and neither parent received more than a sixth-grade education. So her decision to enlist in the California Army National Guard at 17 was that much more remarkable. “I wanted to prove to myself and my family that I could be independent and provide for myself,” she recalls. 

Natalie Aquino Cantu
Sgt. Natalie Aquino, then of the 870th Military Police Company, 49th Military Police Brigade, California Army National Guard, competed in the state's 2017 Best Warrior Competition in 2016 at Camp San Luis Obispo. / Photo by Staff Sgt. Eddie Siguenza, Army National Guard

Among Cantu’s exploits while serving in the Guard was her performance in the Best Warrior competition in late 2016. As part of the 49th Military Police Brigade, Cantu—then known as Sgt. Aquino—charged through an 11-mile course while carrying a 35-pound pack. The experience, she said, prepared her for the challenges of Air Assault school, from which she graduated in 2017.

“I enjoy working closely with people, particularly those at high risk due to their backgrounds and personal situations,” Cantu says. While serving in Southern California, Cantu found time between deployments to pursue a college degree and enrolled at Cal State–Los Angeles. With a passion for protecting and helping others, she earned a BA in criminal justice with a minor in political science. 

But law enforcement, she now says, ultimately wasn’t the ideal fit. “I realized at some point that law enforcement might not be the best path and that a career that allows me to provide guidance and help intervene at an earlier stage in somebody's life would be better for me.” 

Being There for Those Who Need It Most

As Cantu solidified her decision to shift to teaching, she was motivated, in part, by a difficult memory. In high school, her childhood friend was tried for attempted murder—at age 16. 

“My friend’s situation made me realize that I want to help children in similar circumstances and show them that they have other options in life,” she says. “As a teacher, I want to create a safe space for kids where they can make better decisions for themselves.”

After accepting a promotion to sergeant and relocating to California’s Pittsburg/Bay Point area, Cantu decided to pursue a teaching degree. She chose Saint Mary’s after a visit to the campus. First, however, came a nine-month stint with the military in Jordan, where she performed logistic duties with an infantry battalion from 2017 to 2018. Her experience in the Middle East was another turning point in her life.

“I was very immersed in the culture and it was important to me that I learn how to communicate with the Jordanian army as well as civilians, so I learned a bit of the Arabic language,” she says. She calls her travels through Jordan “a beautiful experience for me” and was particularly moved by seeing and learning about the refugee community there.

After returning to the Bay Area, Cantu started taking classes at Saint Mary’s in early 2020. Though she was commuting from Bay Point, she said the College exceeded her expectations of what a student can gain through higher education. “I had never experienced education like that before,” she says.

“As a teacher, I want to create a safe space for kids where they can make better decisions for themselves.”

The care, support, and commitment of the SMC faculty and staff quickly became apparent. She recalls an unexpected phone call from KSOE faculty member Gemma Niermann, who had reviewed her application and wanted to express the delight and excitement she felt when reading about Cantu and the prospect of her joining the Gael community. 

Several months later, Niermann approached Cantu on campus, asked if she could give the new student a hug, and let her know how pleased she was to have her. Cantu tears up now when recalling their embrace and the warmth Niermann displayed toward her. 

Cantu military portrait
Ma’am, yes ma’am: Prior to earning her Master's in Teaching at SMC, Natalie Aquino rose to the rank of staff sergeant in the California Army National Guard. / Photo courtesy Natalie Cantu

“She was amazing, and I’ll never forget the warm feeling she gave me,” says Cantu. “It just showed me that, wow, these professors truly care.” Niermann passed away only months later.

Away from the Fray

Having experienced several stressful situations already in her young life, Cantu says the beauty of the campus, the tranquil setting, and the physical environment in general contributed to a very positive experience.

“Saint Mary’s was just so different,” she says. “For me, it was a psychological, physical, and emotional shift that I needed at that moment in my life. It made it a wonderful place for me to grow as a person, and I felt so committed to my studies like never before.”

Now, as she prepares for Commencement and the opportunities that lie ahead, Cantu is busy raising two young children with her husband Michael—her son Ezra is only two months old—as well as two stepchildren. She recently accepted a dual language teaching position, allowing her to teach in both Spanish and English, and she’s eager to instruct first-generation students and those from migrant families. 

“I’ll continue studying history and social studies topics, and I’m open to broadening the kinds of topics I’m qualified to teach,” she says. And her Saint Mary’s experience will continue to propel her. “The time I spent there was amazing. I felt so seen and knew I was a member of the campus, and I’m really sad that it’s coming to an end.” 

Natalie Cantu is one of several military veterans who will cross the SMC Commencement stages this spring. Others include Jeffrey Felix MBA ’24Ryan Harper MFA ’24Lucas Maas ’24 (Communications); Josh McClendon '21, MA ’24 (Kinesiology); Mike Pineda ’24 (Health Science); and Kindra Stewart MFA ’24.