A force to be reckoned with
It was January 2008. Music wafted through the streets of the sleepy beach town of Duncans, Jamaica. A group of USD students, who were participating in a Center for Community Service-Learning (CSL) immersion program, mingled with local residents. The townspeople playfully encouraged their visitors to dance. Right then. Right there.
“Jimmy’s not a dancer,” CSL Associate Director John Loggins recalls with a chuckle. “To see him just going for it — not dancing well, but really putting his heart into it — was a great moment.”
The performance earned James Frkovich ’09 the nickname “Hurricane Jimmy.” While the moniker was in stark contrast to the disciplined bearing of a young man who’s aspired to a military career since childhood, his enthusiastic exhibition demonstrated his willingness to shed inhibitions in order to build meaningful relationships.
“Most people look for the path of least resistance, but not Jimmy,” Loggins says. “Doing this work and making connections with people is hard, but now that Jimmy is literally in the line of fire, I’m reminded of how brave he is on both fronts.”
In Spring 2011, Frkovich (pictured, center) deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps to serve as an advisor to local Afghan police. The path that led him there began at Alcalá Park. While he enrolled at USD primarily for its NROTC program, he soon became fascinated with his international relations coursework.
The turning point came when Frkovich took a “Politics in Africa” course that included performing 10 hours of community service working with children at the Southern Sudanese Community Center of San Diego. Frkovich logged close to 40 hours — four times the class requirement.
Loggins took notice and asked him to work at the center as a site coordinator. Frkovich’s involvement in CSL began to domino: He joined the Jamaica immersion program as a student leader and helped lead an effort to turn an unused plot of land into a community soccer field. “It was the first time that I spent an entire day working for a community
and just doing something that was good,” he recalls.
But his most formative CSL experience came the following year. Frkovich was a student leader for a three-week immersion program working with an organization treating people suffering from HIV and AIDS, in a region of Northern Uganda devastated after years of brutal conflict that has killed thousands and displaced many more.
It was an overhelming situation, but “the purpose of these CSL trips isn’t just about physically helping people; it’s about building relationships,” Loggins explains. In Uganda — which he was able to visit due to a grant from Strauss Foundation — Frkovich encountered a woman who invited him and a few other students to visit the Pabo refugee camp where she lived with her family.
“I’ll never forget it,” he recalls. “It was a camp of over 20,000 people crammed into a small area and surrounded by empty space for as far as the eye could see.”
It wasn’t the wrenching scenes of abject poverty, disease and starvation that surprised Frkovich as much as the buoyant resiliency that he found in the people living there. “That day really changed my life,” he says. “Later it hit me that this is what happens when we in the security sector don’t do our job. That’s when I knew that my place was in the Marines.”
After graduation, Frkovich entered infantry officer course training and was slated to become a rifle platoon commander before an abrupt change in orders led to his current assignment advising police in Afghanistan.
“It was completely different than anything I had expected, but I’m glad it happened,” he says. “It has definitely been both rewarding and challenging.”
Now 1st Lt. Frkovich assists with criminal investigations and police patrols while providing tutelage to the Afghan police officers amidst the pulsing tension of working in a war zone. Still, the biggest challenge is simply being able to bridge the cultural divide.
“My experience at CSL has had a huge impact on how I approach my assignment,” Frkovich says. “It taught me how to quickly get over the uncomfortable parts of working with people from other cultures and how to build a relationship with them.”
Those relationships tend to take root. To this day, whenever another CSL group returns to Jamaica, residents still ask about Hurricane Jimmy and send their regards.
“We learned and grew as much from him as he did from us,” Loggins says. “It’s his ability and real tenacity for doing the work that has allowed him to develop the leadership skills that he’s now putting into practice in Afghanistan.”