Call of Duty
After serving their country, 11 veterans take their place as students in Vassar’s newest class.
In some ways, they’re typical incoming freshmen, excited about launching their college careers and a bit anxious about their ability to adapt to new surroundings.
But in many other ways, the 11 military veterans enrolling at Vassar this fall are different from the other 655 members of the Class of 2017. Some may not have risen to the notice of the Admissions Committee back when they graduated from high school, but all have achieved success since then, both in and out of military life. Most have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, often in positions of leadership, and some have been seriously wounded.
David Carrell, a 12-year veteran of the Army, was a tank commander during four tours in Iraq before a back injury forced him to retire. He says he believes his military training and experience will help him embrace the challenges and opportunities he will encounter at Vassar.
“Sometimes, when you’re in a firefight, it’s good to take what we call a tactical pause—to step back for a moment and see what’s confronting you—before you decide on your next course of action,” Carrell says. That’s what he did to prepare for his first semester at the college. “I keep hearing people say we’ll be an asset to the college,” Carrell says, “but I’m looking forward to learning all I can, not only from the faculty but also from the students. Maybe I can use my life experience to help them, but they all have knowledge I don’t have, and they can help me, too.”
The veterans, eight men and three women, were selected after undergoing a rigorous screening process through the Posse Foundation, a New York City–based organization that helps public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential to enter and succeed at prestigious colleges and universities. Vassar is the first college in the country to work with the Posse Foundation on identifying and matriculating qualified military veterans.
President Catharine Bond Hill says she decided to form the partnership with the Posse Foundation because she believes Vassar and other prestigious colleges have an obligation to reach out to veterans and increase their numbers on campus.
“We began planning for this almost two years ago and it’s exciting they’re finally here, taking classes and engaging in other activities on campus,” Hill says. “We are a nonprofit institution that receives benefits from the federal government, and these veterans have assumed a huge responsibility for our country, so it seems to me we have an obligation as an institution to do this.”
Dean of Admission and Financial Aid David Borus agrees. “We’ve been doing a good job creating a diverse student body ethnically, geographically, and economically,” Borus says, “but our outreach to veterans before this has not been successful, and they are a growing segment of the population.”
He says he views the recruitment of veterans as “not only an obligation but also an opportunity. They bring some unique perspectives, and when they come to campus, everybody benefits.”
The veterans, some of whom are coming with families, say they’ve been impressed with the support they’ve received from Vassar administrators as they begin their journey here.
“Everyone I’ve met at Vassar has been super supportive, from advice on academics right down to where to find a good Mexican restaurant,” says Carrell, who moved with his wife, their son and daughter, and two dogs to a home off campus a few weeks before classes began.
Anuradha “Anu” Datta, who emigrated from Calcutta, India, with her family when she was a child, decided to join the Army in the wake of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. She says she knew her parents would be opposed to the idea, so she didn’t tell them until she was about to leave for Basic Training in 2005.
“As a first-generation immigrant, I wanted to repay this country for the opportunities it gave my family and me,” Datta says. “I didn’t tell my parents until I was all packed, and they never fully accepted my decision, but now that I’m out of the service, they’re grateful I’m no longer in harm’s way and enrolling at Vassar. Other members of my family have gone to prestigious colleges, and that was my parents’ plan for me, too, so they’re very excited.”
Datta says she’s glad to be part of the group of veterans—they’ve formed strong bonds during seminars and training sessions run by the Posse Foundation to help prepare them for their college careers.
A victim of abuse by her then-husband while she was in the Army, Datta founded an organization for domestic abuse victims called Project Uplift while working as a civilian employee for the Army in Corpus Christi, Texas. She says she hopes to continue her work with such victims in the Poughkeepsie area while she’s enrolled at Vassar. She also plans to join Vassar’s Ballroom Dancing Club and the South Asian Students Alliance.
"It’s great to be one of the Posse members—going through that training has been really helpful,” she says.
Like Datta, Army veteran Karlene Williams says she plans to pursue volunteer work—something she had been doing for the last two years with a veterans’ organization in New York City called the Mission Continues. The group connects vets with volunteer opportunities throughout the city.
“I’ve been involved in coordinating cultural events, such as fundraisers, for not-for-profit agencies, and I’m looking for something like that in the [Poughkeepsie] area,” Williams says.
Williams says she reached out to Vassar’s Christian Fellowship before she arrived on campus, “and that helped me feel welcome.” The mother of three children, Williams says she decided to leave them in the care of their grandparents in New York City and live on campus—at least for her freshman year.
“I want to focus on my academics and living in the dorms seemed like the best way to do that,” she says, adding she’s been “overwhelmed” by the support she and the other vets have received from the Posse Foundation and from Vassar.
“When I found out I’d been accepted, I cried on and off for about three days, and since then, all my questions have been answered almost before I ask them,” Williams says.
Army vet Fernando Braga, a track worker with the Metropolitan Trans-portation Authority, moved here with his wife, Maria, and their infant daughter, Zafira. Braga says Vassar made the transition to college easier than he anticipated. And he credits Maria, who left her job as a New York City public school teacher, with convincing him to pursue the opportunity the Vassar-Posse collaboration had offered.
“We were becoming more financially secure, almost to the point where we could afford to buy a house, but Maria told me I’d be crazy not to go to Vassar,” he says. “And the interaction with everyone at the college has been great, from helping us with financial aid to answering our questions about day care.”
Braga says he also received some invaluable help from Posse faculty mentor and Professor of Mathematics Ben Lotto about his academics. He was planning to enroll in a dual-degree engineering program at Dartmouth College but was missing some math requirements. Without ever telling Braga he should abandon his pursuit of an engineering degree, Lotto asked him to consider what he really wanted out of college. After asking himself a few questions, Braga says he realized his true passion is international relations.
“It’s something I’ve been interested in all my life—I read Foreign Affairs magazine all the time and I love watching podcasts on international issues,” he says. “Without ever saying it, Ben steered me to what I really want to do. He spent a lot of time helping me ask myself the right questions so that I came up with my own answer. That seems to be the Vassar way of doing things.”
Lotto says the interaction he had with Braga was not all that different from conversations he’s had in the past with more traditional freshmen. “Sure, the veterans come here with some unique issues, but you can say the same thing about a lot of other students,” he says. “The ‘Vassar way’ is to advise students in this manner—to identify their strengths and empower them to deal with any obstacles they may have to overcome. That’s what we do, and I have faith in everyone on this campus to help any student solve whatever problems may arise.”
Air Force veteran Joshua Ridley says he faced a series of bureaucratic roadblocks when he first left the military and enrolled at a large university. That has not been the case at Vassar.
“If you have a question about academics, they refer you to the appropriate dean. If you have an issue with financial aid, you talk directly to [Director of Financial Aid] Jessica Bernier,” Ridley says. “This is not the kind of treatment I’m used to.”
Patrick Hood, who rose to the rank of sergeant during his four years in the infantry in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan, says he hopes to volunteer for a youth recreation program in the Poughkeepsie area. And at the beginning of the school year, Hood was anxious to get started.
“We’re all feeling a sense of excitement,” he says. “We’ve had so many conversations about what Vassar’s going to be like that I think we’re all eager to just get on the pony and ride.”