Jesse Reising grew up in Decatur, Illinois, alongside friends and classmates who "struggled with poverty and routinely endured other unthinkable hardships," he says. "Ivy League schools weren't even a topic of discussion."
But Reising, who skipped fifth grade and was his high school's valedictorian after captaining its football team, made it to Yale University anyway.
"The first Ivy League letter I received was a football recruiting letter from a school that, at the time, I thought was pronounced 'Dart-mouth,'" he recalls. "Needless to say, arriving at Yale was a massive culture shock. It didn't take long for me to realize how lucky I was to have been plucked out of a small, hardscrabble Midwestern city to have the opportunity to attend a school like Yale."
"It was my first exposure to America as the land of opportunity," he goes on, "and I needed an outlet for the gratitude I felt for all those who made sacrifices before me to make such opportunities available." The best way he could think to repay the debt he felt was through military service.
As Reising was deciding on which branch, an Army recruiter rattled off all the benefits of joining. The Marine recruiter, on the other hand, asked him: "What makes you think you have what it takes to be a Marine officer?" Reising was sold.
While still at Yale, he began Officer Candidates School, with plans to earn his commission after graduation. Reising's junior year, he interned for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. "The Marine Corps became interwoven with my sense of identity," Reising says. "It's who I was, and I couldn't imagine any other reality."
Reising also played on Yale's football team as a starting linebacker. His teammates voted him most likely to be president, and he was a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, sometimes referred to as the "academic Heisman," awarded annually to America's top football scholar-athlete based on "their combined athletic, academic, and leadership abilities."
Then everything changed.
During the last quarter of his last game of his last season of college football, 2010's Harvard-Yale rivalry match-up, Reiser collided with Harvard University's running back. He lay limp for over 10 minutes before he could be carted off the field on a stretcher.
He later learned that he'd torn two nerves in his neck, and that his right arm would be mostly paralyzed. He also learned that, because of the nature of his injuries, military service would be out of the question.
"Losing the Marine Corps shattered my sense of identity and left me feeling stripped of any sense of meaning or purpose," Reising says. "Once I could no longer become a marine, I had to think long and hard. Eventually, I realized that what drove me to want to be a marine wasn't necessarily the Marine Corps itself. What I really wanted to do was serve my country to the best of my ability."
So he set out to do three things to replace his military service: First, he'd go to Afghanistan as a civilian to support United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization efforts there. Second, he'd start a non-profit to make sure that veterans are equipped with the skills necessary for college success. And finally, he says, "I would serve and represent my country as a federal prosecutor just as I would have as a marine."
After graduating from Yale in 2011, with distinction and two degrees—one in economics, the other in political science—he studied Pashto and took a flight to Afghanistan. He'd gotten a job with Fluor, managing construction and engineering projects from a combat outpost in the Hindu Kush mountains, within sight of Pakistan. His arm was still paralyzed.
"I had thought it through and needed to go to Afghanistan," he says, "to prove to myself that I could and to retake control of my life after the injury."
Back stateside, he started his first year at Harvard Law School, where he was a senior editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He also regained partial use of his right arm—doctors had performed nerve graft and transfer surgeries—and had to relearn how to write.
During law school, he also expanded the Warrior-Scholar Project, the non-profit he'd co-founded with two of his Yale classmates (Chris Howell and Nick Rugoff) to give veterans who are first-time college students a free two-week course to ensure subsequent academic success. These intensive "academic boot camps" were hosted at 12 campuses, including Yale, Harvard, and Cornell University, though participants don't have to be affiliated with the school where they take their course.
During WSP's program, members of the military get free room and board on campus, as well as free course materials and books. Its curriculum teaches core college skills—note-taking, time management, study methods, and an analytic reading technique called "ninja reading"—and includes professor-led writing workshops, mentorship from fellow veterans who successfully transitioned from the military to university life, and guidance on the admissions process.
Reising's energy for running the program comes from his desire "to serve those serving in the military in my place." His Warrior-Scholar Project has already helped more than 500 veterans. Through it, Reising says, "I hope we can make them realize that their service to their country did not end when they left the military. Their love of country, dedication to service, and relentless pursuit of causes bigger than themselves does not end when they return from war."
"Education can help harness veterans' patriotic energy in ways that improve our nation," Reising goes on. "They realize that they can still protect the same principles that they protected overseas. Now they must do so with their brains instead of with their rifles."
Reising encourages veterans to study the liberal arts, which, he says, can help "reconcile internal conflicts by providing the kind of perspective they need to better understand their experiences as they try to make sense of a world which they may have had to take the life of another to defend." In fact, Reising believes so deeply in the humanities that he has spoken before congressional staffers about how best to fund them.
As much time and effort as Reising invests in running the Warrior-Scholar Project, it's not his main gig. That would be his job at the Department of Justice—in accordance with the goal he set for himself years ago, he is a federal prosecutor in the agency's antitrust division. Working out of his Chicago office, Reising prosecutes what he calls "white-collar criminals who corrupt the American economy to benefit themselves."
"One of the most solemn aspects of joining the military, in my opinion, is taking the oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic," Reising explains. "I was finally able to take that oath as a federal prosecutor, almost five years after the injury that disqualified me from taking the oath as a marine."
"I've spent the past six years trying to fill the void left by losing the Marine Corps," Reising says. "I think I will always feel like something is missing. But right now I'm happy serving in the best ways I know how: tapping into the potential of today's veterans to become tomorrow's leaders, and focusing on being the best federal prosecutor I can be."
Though he's back in Illinois, he's a long way from gritty Decatur, a hometown that he says "has given me a sense of perspective that has served me well in difficult times—whenever I've been confronted with adversity, I've felt that I have no right to feel sorry for myself. I'm not sure I would have the same love of country, appreciation for what America has to offer, or drive to serve if I had grown up anywhere else."
It's a place, no doubt, that has influenced his overall philosophy: "I try not to ask what I want out of life, but instead ask what life wants out of me."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.