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UNM-Valencia valedictorian wants to pursue career to help other veterans

Veteran, Purple Heart recipient, husband, father. 

Now Johnny Leyba can add another accolade to his list — 2020 valedictorian for The University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus.

Graduating with a 4.18 grade point average and the top spot in his class weren’t goals Leyba set for himself, he says with the support of his wife and daughter and the desire to push himself to be the best, that’s where he landed.

“I’ve always strived for excellence. One of the biggest things is to never stop learning,” Leyba said. “I try to achieve more to help others. I want to keep learning so I can pass down knowledge. I feel like once you learn so much, you should help others achieve their goals as well.”

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Johnny Leyba, an Army veteran, was the 2020 valedictorian for The University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus. He plans to double major in criminology and psychology at UNM main campus, then go on to work with veterans.

When Leyba graduated from Belen High School in 2007, he went straight into the Army at 17 years old, following in the footsteps of his older brother who was in the Army Reserves.

“I think I was maybe afraid of school. I just felt like I needed that break,” he said.

After 4 1/2 years in the Army, two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a Purple Heart after an injury by an improvised explosive device, Leyba returned home, looking for a new path.

He says the injury from the IED was part of what pushed him to go to college and pursue psychology.

“I chose that as a major initially because in the military I was in the security field, but then it became about self care for myself, to learn about my brain,” he said.

UNM-Valencia campus doesn’t offer a degree program in psychology, so Leyba earned an associate degree in criminology. He took every psychology class he could to get ready for a bachelor’s degree in the subject; he plans to also major in criminology.

His wife, Theadora, who has a master’s degree in education, and daughter, Xayla, 10, helped keep him motivated to succeed.

“My wife really pushed me to push myself, and my daughter was always looking at my grades,” he said with a laugh. “I had that motivation but I was still surprised by the phone call that I was valedictorian.”

That motivation, plus setting a good example for his newborn son, Jaxon, will get Leyba through the next four years to earn both the degrees he wants.

He finished his last semester at UNM-Valencia in December 2019 and transferred to main campus in Albuquerque.

At 30, which is not that old, Leyba points out, he wants to remind everyone who isn’t a new high school graduate that it’s never too lave to pursue new adventures.

“A lot of people think for school, that’s too late,” he said. “But it’s not.”

As he’s worked on his education, Leyba said initially he planned to use his degrees to move up at the private security company he works for, to become a director. That’s still a goal but he found a calling, he says.

“I would eventually like to work with Veterans Affairs and work with veterans, maybe go into the hospital,” he said. “That’s my ultimate end goal.

“Even though I like security, my veteran side calls me. This will help myself but I’d like to help others.”

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