U.S. Navy Veteran Attends UCF With His Two Sons
Navy veteran George Tunaya ’03 attended the University of Central Florida at age 47 alongside his sons, Jerome Tunaya ’03 and George Tunaya III.
Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, George Tunaya ’03 enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1973, when he was twenty years old.
Tunaya’s family has a tradition of military service. His father, George was a major in the military. His mother, Esperanza, served as a combat nurse during World War II, when the Philippines was occupied by Japan. In 2019, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States.
George and Esperanza had eight children, three girls and five boys. Three of their sons, including Tunaya, are military veterans.
“I would spend my summers in Bataan, where most of the battles happened during World War II,” says Tunaya. “There’s a naval base next to our town, and you see the ships going by. And as a little boy, you say, ‘I wonder what it’s like to be in one of those ships.’”
After attending the University of the Philippines for a year and a half, Tunaya joined a program for 18-25 year-olds to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
“For me, the timing was right,” he says. “In 1972, we had martial law in the Philippines, and I joined in 1973. So, it kind of took me out of trouble. I was one of the lucky ones. It’s really a blessing that, by chance, I was able to join the U.S. Navy.”
Tunaya was stationed in the Philippines from 1977 to 1980. He married his wife, Lucina, in 1978.
“When you’re deployed is probably the hardest. You’re separated from your family. You miss birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving,” says Tunaya. “I remember being gone for seven months right after my son was born. When we came back, my son woke up in the middle of the night and was looking at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
In 1980, when the Navy opened a new school focused on computers in California, Tunaya decided to try it. He learned about fixing transistors, resistors, chips and more at the component level, later serving as a jet mechanic. During his last 10 years in the Navy, Tunaya was the school director.
After 26 years in the U.S. Navy, Tunaya retired in January of 2000. Seven months later, he started his first semester at UCF, where his sons were also students.
“UCF was really big in computers at the time, it was twenty minutes from our home, and my sons George and Jerome were in their second year at the university. I told my wife that maybe I should go back to school,” says Tunaya. “People said, ‘You don’t need a degree; you have experience.’ But I wanted to make sure my sons would know that this is how they should do it.”
By taking classes every summer, Tunaya finished his degree in electrical engineering with a computer systems track in three years. He shared a few classes and even some projects with his son George, and eventually walked across the stage at graduation with his son Jerome.
“For me, it was a challenge because I was 47,” says Tunaya. “My first semester, it was really hard coming back to school after such a long time. You walk into a class, and everyone gets really quiet thinking you’re the professor. I’m like, ‘Hey guys, I’m one of you!’
“But the staff was amazing, and I got to work as a TA and later teach a programming class for my senior project. That was a highlight for me, along with attending UCF with my two sons.”
Tunaya also enjoyed Spirit Splash, Barnes & Noble, getting frappuccinos, and frequently spotting Dante Culpepper on campus.
Another major highlight was working in the Veterans Academic Resource Center (VARC).
“A lot of veterans would come in and not know what path to take. The campus is very different from the environment they were used to in the military. It’s so easy for them to get lost. But we would give them some encouragement. I would talk to them and ask, ‘What’s your goal? How do you think you could achieve your goal? What can we do to help?'”
After graduation, Tunaya continued working as a defense contractor supporting the naval air warfare training systems division, and he eventually started his company. Most recently, he decided to to devote time to his family and grandchildren.
Meanwhile, his son George Tunaya III has five children and works for a private defense contractor. Jerome Tunaya is a project engineer for the Naval Air Warfare Center.
“UCF was an incredible experience for all of us,” says Tunaya. “We had a great time. It doesn’t get much better than being a college student with my sons.”