By Sharon Goldman
When Oscar Escano arrived at Columbia University School of General Studies in 2004, he had just left the military after serving for three years as a U.S. Army Ranger, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan in which he participated in a dangerous rescue mission to save a fallen comrade. “I came back from Afghanistan in April and left the military in August—I actually got special permission to leave a week early so I could get to orientation on time,” recalls the New York City native, who graduated in May and will begin medical school at New Jersey Medical School of University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in the fall of 2008. After a “challenging and chaotic” stint in Afghanistan, attending GS helped him make the inevitable adjustment from the military to civilian life.
“GS really suited who I was—a 25-year old who was young at heart but also had a lot of life experiences that others didn’t have,” he says. “I loved having the freedom to mingle as much as I wanted with students from other Columbia schools, but I also enjoyed the diverse group of people that attended GS who weren’t part of the usual dorm social scene.”
Military veterans have been members of Columbia’s nontraditional student body for over a century. Doughboys returning from Europe, along with civilians who had been involved in the war effort at home, swelled the ranks of Extension Teaching (as the school was then known) after World War I from 7,000 students in 1918 to 17,000 by 1923.
Three decades later the influx of veterans back from World War II helped precipitate the reorganization of the extension program into a full-fledged undergraduate college with a unique mission: providing a rigorous, Ivy League education to its nontraditional student body.
Today GS is home to the largest number of veterans in the Ivy League, a statistic that Provost Alan Brinkley is particularly proud of. “We’re delighted that so many veterans choose to come to Columbia,” he says, “especially to GS, which was created specifically for students who have had a significant break in their education.”
For Justin White ’05, BUS ’07, a former Marine who served for five years, including stretches in the Netherlands and Ghana, attending Columbia was a dream come true. “The fact that GS took a chance on me when I came out of the military, because I seemed to have promise, changed my whole life,” he says. “I’m eternally grateful to the admissions committee and all of the administration.”
Even with the support of GS, however, many veterans find the lifestyle shift daunting. “I saw it as more of a cultural change,” White says. “You have a lot of guys who get out of the military, and literally a week or two later they’re full-time students. You just spent years of your life doing things a certain way, and then you come to Columbia, where the way you relate to people is different.”
Escano agrees: “I went to Afghanistan, for crying out loud. That changes your perspective in ways it’s difficult for me to convey. It’s impossible to explain to anyone who went straight from home and high school to a very nice, supportive college environment.”
White, Escano, and other veteran friends were surprised to find that that there had never been an organized student group for military veterans on campus. In 2003 they founded the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia, or MilVets, a social group whose goal is “to promote camaraderie and networking among U.S. veterans, as well as to stimulate discussion and education on various aspects of military culture.”
“MilVets started out with the idea that we have a lot of veterans at GS and in other schools such as Teachers College and the Law School,” White says, “so we wanted to build a forum for people to get together, have some beers, and unwind, as well as be a resource to the school.”
For GS senior Luke Stalcup, the current president of the now nearly 100-strong MilVets, the group helps vets keep from feeling isolated on a large campus where the vast majority of students have not had similar experiences. “When you get here as a veteran, there’s definitely a palpable sense that you are not like the rest of the students in class,” he says. “And compared to other GS students, veteran students tend to be younger—our average age, in my experience, is 24 or 25.”
Stalcup, who grew up in Oakland, Calif., enlisted in 1999 as an explosive ordinance disposal specialist in the Army bomb squad. “I guess it’s something I had always kind of wanted to do,” he says. “I’m a believer in public service, and when you’re 18 and you’re not looking to go to college, the military is definitely a direct link to doing something good for the world.” Stalcup passed a variety of rigorous tests and training and was deployed to Kuwait for seven months, returning in 2001. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was really clear that we were going to have a lot more work after that,” he says. Shortly before the U.S. Army’s invasion, his unit was deployed to both Qatar, in late 2002, and Iraq in 2003. He remained in Iraq until October 2003. “All of our missions were inherently dangerous,” he explains, due to the proliferation of land mines, unexploded bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq.
Stalcup returned home to California in 2004 and spent a semester at the University of California at Berkeley. “A lot of things happened in Iraq that made me feel like I wanted to be able to define my missions, and that meant becoming an officer and getting a college degree,” he explains. A friend who had attended GS told him about the school: “She said it wasn’t just a bunch of 18-year-olds who were excited to be away from home, but it was more tailored to adults who were serious about their education.” Stalcup no longer plans to become an officer in the Army, but going back into public service in some form is still a high priority for him. He is majoring in both mathematics and Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures.
Although Columbia has enjoyed a long relationship with its military veteran students, it has not been without controversy. The campus was a famous site of demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968, and, along with six other Ivy League schools, Columbia banned the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in 1969. After years of debate, the University Senate voted not to bring the ROTC back to campus in 2005.
Over the past two years allegations of anti-military bias have been made against Columbia by members of the MilVets group in the wake of a controversy surrounding GS student Matthew Sanchez, who claimed he was verbally attacked for being a member of the Marines at a student event in September 2005.
Subsequently the MilVets conducted a series of meetings and discussions with Provost Brinkley and his office. “The Sanchez incident unleashed a series of concerns from a lot of veterans on campus about how they’re treated and feel they’re viewed,” says Brinkley. “I had dinner at my home for many of them, and we talked a lot about the issues they face as veterans who are students. Our dialogue has been positive.”
Current GS student and MilVets vice president Peter Kim, a former Marine legal attaché who served in Iraq, agrees that the exchanges have been constructive. “We started a great dialogue with Provost Brinkley’s office,” he says. “As the student population has started to engage in this issue more like a debate rather than an argument, the administration has become more open to it. I’m so thankful to be able to witness this and be a part of it.”
Brinkley denies, however, that Columbia is a hostile environment for vets. “The opposition to ROTC was based on the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that violates our own anti-discrimination rules,” he says. “I don’t believe those who opposed ROTC on those grounds had any animus towards veterans or the military.” In addition to the meetings with MilVets, he adds, the Provost’s office has made sure the university’s anti-discrimination policy includes discrimination against people on the basis of military service, and that the Student Services offices are conscientiously helping student veterans sort out the complexities of military benefits.
But not all GS vets want to be a part of MilVets or deal with the issues facing veterans on campus. “I had enough on my plate, with some family illnesses, a death in the family, as well as serving in my unit one weekend a month,” says recent GS graduate Amy Garcia, a member of the Maryland unit of the U.S. National Guard since January 2003. There were times, however, when the New Jersey native felt uncomfortable as a member of the military, especially when she had to show up on campus in uniform. “People get really passionate when they see someone dressed as a soldier,” she says. “I guess people just don’t understand that we’re individuals.”
Still, Garcia says, the military offered great training and discipline that translated into college success. “Columbia was the best experience of my life,” she says firmly. “I wouldn’t have the chances in life I have now if it weren’t for Columbia.” Now living with her husband in Westminster, Md., and expecting their first child, Garcia plans on going back to school to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology, with a pediatric specialization.
Initially Peter Kim also didn’t want to be singled out, especially as “the guy who went to war.” He wanted to experience Columbia, he explains, without the tag of being a veteran. But he has found students to be more open than he had initially expected, noting that “the majority are very accepting, even if they don’t agree about the war or the politics behind it.”
For others the transition to Columbia went without a hitch: Zhuo Zheng, a 23-year-old recent GS graduate and former Marine who is embarking upon a career in banking, didn’t find college life hard to handle. “I think I coped pretty well—I didn’t really have any issues. I did over the first couple of months after I came back from Iraq, but I had several months to adjust to my regular life before I started school.” He was excited to find a program at such an elite school that actually welcomed him as a nontraditional student. And finding other members of the military on campus was a bonus, he says: “It comforted me that I wasn’t alone.”
Columbia’s military veterans have plenty of advice for prospective veteran students, who can occasionally suffer from transition issues— including feelings of isolation, depression and stress—even if they have already been at the University for many months. “Number one, they should come talk to me and hang out,” Kim laughs. “Columbia is just a big intellectual party, and Thursday through Saturday it’s another kind of party—the whole city is at your disposal, so you should embrace it.”
On a more serious note, Escano emphasizes the importance of getting support from other students who have served, in order to ease the adjustment to student life. “It was tremendously helpful to lean on my fellow veterans,” he says. “It was just about having somebody who understood what I went through—this visceral, immersive experience where my mind still goes, even if my body is on campus in a lecture hall.”