Six years after the inauguration fo the Yellow Ribbon Program, GS's veteran alumni continue to make Columbia proud.
By Robert Ast '08
While veterans have been drawn to the School of General Studies ever since its founding in the wake of World War II, in the 21st century a new generation of veterans has arrived at Columbia in significant numbers. And though these veterans have had a major impact on campus, from providing an important voice in classroom discussions to advocating for new policies, what’s even more impressive is what they have gone on to do next.
In 2002, the veteran community began to coalesce when GS students founded the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University, or MilVets, a student organization intended to bring together veterans; by 2008, 60 veterans were enrolled at GS, the largest veteran presence in the Ivy League. In 2009, the Department of Veteran Affairs announced the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the most comprehensive suite of education benefits for U.S. military veterans since the original GI Bill. That fall, veteran enrollment at GS rose by two-thirds, to 100. The next year, the number of veterans at GS doubled, and has continued to grow each year, with nearly 410 veterans studying at GS in the spring 2015 semester—still the largest number, by a wide margin, among any of Columbia’s peer institutions.
That significant veteran presence has been an important element in the school’s recruitment efforts. Andrew King ’15 offers an instructive example. A linguist in the Marine Corps’ 1st Radio Battalion who served in Afghanistan, King was stationed at Camp Pendleton when he heard from a friend and fellow Marine about a college that served veterans at Columbia University. He did some research, learned more about GS, and reached out to current student veterans. After scheduling an interview with GS Vice Dean Curtis Rodgers through the base education center, King applied through the Marine Corps’ Leadership Scholars Program and was accepted, as was his friend Ben Vickery. Vickery and King graduated together this May: during their senior year, Vickery served as president of the MilVets, while King was the MilVets treasurer as well as the salutatorian of the class of 2015.
“I knew that, coming off of a deployment, I was going to need to have people I could talk to and bond with similar to what I had in the Corps,” King says. “The size of the community and how easy it was to connect are a big part of why I decided to come to GS.”
A MilVets-led mentorship program pairing new students with more experienced counterparts has helped veterans become acclimated quickly to the University and hit the ground running, while veteran alumni have been active in outreach to current students, providing an important sense of continuity and institutional memory. More than any other factor, though, the growth of the veteran community has been fueled by the efficacy of support systems—from academic advising to educational financing—that have long been in place to meet the needs of the school’s nontraditional students. For Rory Minnis ’11, that administrative support was instrumental in helping him to connect with his fellow students.
As the locus of the transition between military service and civilian life, GS marks a crucial period in the lives of veterans.
“There’s a unique working culture at GS,” says Minnis, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a sergeant and staff sergeant, respectively, in the Marine Corps. “You go into the GS Lounge, and it’s so multitudinous. Everyone’s coming from a different place and working on a different thing. But there’s a sense of commonality in the difference that stems from the support structure that’s in place.”
Columbia faculty members tout the benefits of having veterans share their experiences in the classroom; on a larger scale, the large veteran presence has also helped GS to advocate for new campuswide policies and services—King cites housing accommodations for students with disabilities as one example—that in turn benefit a larger swath of the Columbia student body. But the impact of the veteran community radiates beyond Columbia, as Minnis points out.
“Less than 1 percent of the American population fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and you could do a demographic analysis to see how that’s concentrated socioeconomically and geographically,” Minnis said. “The danger is that, when these wars are over, there aren’t going to be constant reminders in the headlines or on the nightly news; they’ll fade very quickly from memory. The way to prevent that from happening is to look at the next generation of leaders, policymakers, NGO workers, journalists—it’s so important to have veterans interacting with other students at the undergraduate level, because everyone branches off into different pathways. That’s why the mission of a place like GS is incredibly important in affecting questions that’ll be raised in the future.”
Of course GS veterans are also making an impact themselves, in a wide variety of fields. King is now working as a consultant at Oliver Wyman; Minnis is in his second year at Yale Law School. Some veterans have undertaken advanced study at highly selective graduate programs, including Harvard Medical School, the London School of Economics, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; others have returned to public service, using their expertise to work on Capitol Hill, in the U.S. Department of State, and at missiondriven nonprofits; still others have gone on to leadership roles at some of the world’s leading companies, including Accenture, Amazon, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Booz Allen Hamilton, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey & Company, Morgan Stanley, UBS Financial Services, and Viacom, to cite only a few.
GS plays a critical role in preparing veterans for future success, notes Elvis Camacho ’13, who served in the Marine Corps and the Army Reserves in Bahrain, Japan, Hawaii, and Iraq in security operations and as an infantry leader. Now in his third year as an MD candidate at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, he credits both the Columbia curriculum and the advising he received at GS with preparing him for medical school.
“The intensity and rigor of the academic program, the support and resources, the students—everything was at a completely different level than what I was expecting, but rather than discourage or dissuade me, it only pushed me and helped me to work on my weaknesses, so that by the time I got to medical school, I was ready,” he recalls.
“I was very austere coming from the military and was succinct and direct when asked questions. A workshop from the premedical advising team completely changed the way that I interviewed by helping me learn how to express myself and articulate my thoughts. Retrospectively, I may have been able to obtain interviews at medical schools but I doubt they would’ve accepted me if I would’ve continued to interview in the way that I was accustomed.”
Reflecting on his career options and his experiences after graduation, which include studying Arabic and conducting research in Egypt as well as working for the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha, Minnis espouses a similar sentiment.
“If you had told me in 2007 that I’d be at Yale Law School, I’d have laughed in your face,” he says. “I’m amazed at the opportunities I have right now that GS helped me to get.”
As the locus of the transition between military service and civilian life, GS marks a crucial period in the lives of veterans. As an incubator for academic and professional development—whether fostering an interest first kindled during military service introducing new intellectual currents, or providing services such as advising, academic support, and career counseling—GS exemplifies what undergraduate education can accomplish.
“It’s been interesting to see the different conversations that happen among veterans and how they change as someone’s exposure to the academy changes,” King says. “You can really tell someone in their first semester from someone who’s been here. That’s one of the first things we tell new students: ‘You’ve got so many books to read.’
“I think that general broadening of worldviews is one of the most important things about GS. I’ve been exposed to so many different ideas, and so many possible options for the future.”