How the Liberal Arts Help Veterans Thrive

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This article first appeared in The Atlantic on June 21, 2017. Written by Kara Voght.

Vassar’s first class of student-veterans to graduate proves that the benefits of an elite liberal arts education extend to them, too.

Members of Vassar's first graduating cohort of Posse Veterans - Eduardo de la Torre, Carl Callender and Fernando Braga

Members of Vassar’s first graduating cohort of Posse Veterans – Eduardo de la Torre, Carl Callender and Fernando Braga

Balanced on the edge of an armchair in the basement of Vassar College’s student center, Eduardo de la Torre is explaining his senior thesis: an exploration of the social construction of technology. The soon-to-be graduate, bouncing on the heels of his grey suede sneakers, looks ready to spring out of his seat as he articulates ideas with frenetic energy, barely able to express connections he’s observed before the next thought sparks. As a fellow Vassar graduate, I feel myself lulled back into a comfortable mode of intellectual discourse, reminded of the fact that de la Torre is a combat Army veteran, and that we’re sitting in a brand new student-veteran lounge, only when he relates his critique of applied economic theory to the difference between a battle’s expected conditions and its reality.

“I joke with my Army buddies, I tell them [theory]is like the plane that gets you there,” the 36-year-old former paratrooper, who deployed to Iraq for the 2007 surge, said. “But once you jump out of the plane, everything else is different on the ground. That’s how you have to look at economics.”

Hardly any Vassar student could have arrived at this analogy until four years ago, when de la Torre and 10 other United States military veterans embarked on an experiment Vassar was leading among small, selective liberal-arts colleges: to seek out and enroll vets. In partnership with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit with a successful track record of connecting students from underrepresented backgrounds with elite schools, Vassar enrolled its first cohort of veterans in the fall of 2013. The results of this effort became clearer in May as five of those student-veterans, including de la Torre, graduated after spending the traditional four years on campus.

In the years that followed, some peer institutions followed Vassar’s lead—Wesleyan University initiated a Posse Veterans cohort in 2014 and its first Posse veteran graduated a year early last month, while other schools, like Williams College, have partnered with Service to School to recruit veterans to their campuses. The initiative rests on the premise that liberal-arts colleges, whose educational doctrines insist on well-roundedness and inclusion, have both the resources and civic obligation to educate the almost 1.7 million post-9/11 veterans seeking college degrees.

Extending the elite, residential liberal-arts college experience to veterans presents complexities. By virtue of their age, military experience, and background, veterans don’t match the profile or preparation of a typical student, and the infrastructure of these residential campuses was not designed with the unique needs of veterans in mind. But the intimacy and intellectual growth at the heart of the liberal-arts experience has enabled veterans to thrive at these institutions, even as those students overcome spades of difference. What’s more, the benefits of Vassar’s experiment aren’t limited to the veterans: To faculty, administrators, and traditional students, student-veterans have imparted lessons about what it means to be liberal and inclusive not only by aspiration, but also in practice.

* * *

De la Torre had heard of Vassar before a friend suggested he apply for Posse’s inaugural veterans cohort. Prior to enlisting in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the then 21-year-old Houston native had studied at Texas A&M University and had considered attending Carleton College, a liberal-arts school of similar size and esteem. But de la Torre’s knowledge wasn’t shared by most of his student-veteran peers. His fellow Vassar Posse veteran Carl Callender, a 38-year-old ex-Marine from Queens, New York, had been working for New York-based Black Veterans for Social Justice when he received Posse’s 2012 recruiting email. He initially ignored the solicitation about an all-expenses-paid education to a school he’d never heard of, applying only when a coworker vouched for Vassar’s prestige.

“I’ll never forget it—he [Callender’s coworker] was like, ‘You know what they say about Vassar? The smartest person in the room went to Vassar,’ like that’s a saying or something,” Callender recalled.

Catharine Bond Hill, who served as the college’s president from 2006 through 2016, learned firsthand how little veterans knew of Vassar when she first initiated vet-friendly measures in the wake of the 2010 passage of the post-9/11 GI Bill. Under Hill’s leadership, Vassar waived application fees for veterans; invited them to speak about their military experience in application supplements; and partnered with the Yellow Ribbon Program, a federal initiative that covers private colleges’ tuition with equal parts institutional scholarship and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs funding. Despite these efforts, Vassar enrolled just one vet in those early years. The pattern repeated at peer institutions like Williams College, which also became a Yellow Ribbon partner and whose representatives visited military bases and community colleges to recruit vets, according to Liz Creighton, Williams’s dean of admissions and financial aid.

Liberal-arts colleges’ lack of recognition among vets is no surprise. Though a 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs report found that 31 percent of student-veterans receive an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a liberal-arts field, only 10 percent of student-veterans enroll in private nonprofit four-year institutions, the category in which schools like Vassar and Williams belong. Wick Sloane, who works at the veteran-heavy Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and writes about veterans’ education for Inside Higher Ed, found that the 16 elite liberal-arts schools he surveyed for his annual report of veterans at elite colleges enrolled a meager 87 veterans in 2016. For college-bound students broadly, Sloane said, “The selective colleges in America have done a remarkable job of marketing themselves: They’ve led you to believe that if you don’t go to one of those colleges, your life is over.” For veterans, “the message to this population is that they aren’t welcome.”

One need only consider the portrait of Vassar and its privileged position in the landscape of American higher education to understand why this might be the case. Founded in 1861 as one of the nation’s first colleges for women, Vassar earned an early reputation as four-year host to the daughters of America’s elite, maintaining its elevated status as it transitioned to coeducation in 1969. The college has repeatedly found itself near the top of U.S. News and World Report’s annual rankings ever since. A bucolic 80-mile train ride north from New York City, the campus’s mansard roofs and Gothic towers earn Vassar high marks on rankings of America’s most beautiful campuses. Obtaining the opportunity to read Barthes’s Mythologies on the library lawn is no small feat: With a median SAT score of 2120 and an average high-school GPA between an A and an A-minus, only roughly one in four applicants will earn admission to the 660-student class. The sticker price for those who enroll is around $260,000 for the four-year full-time experience.

This characterization may ignite the amygdalas of college-groomed high-school seniors, but it presents an intimidating image to prospective student-vets. According to a 2008 Syracuse University study, vets disproportionately belong to working- and middle- class families that lack access to the pre-collegiate preparation afforded to their affluent peers. With a typical enlistment contract of at least four years, 85 percent of college-seeking veterans are at least six years older than the typical 18-year-old freshman. This comes with its attendant share of adult responsibilities: 47 percent are married, and an almost equal percent have children. Even though Vassar guaranteed the full cost of attendance between GI Bill benefits, Yellow Ribbon aid, and the school’s own need-based scholarships—a tremendous increase above the baseline post-9/11 GI Bill tuition benefits, which offer only about $23,000 per year over four years for private schools—the opportunity still seemed, for some, beyond reach. “It just seemed too grandiose,” Callender said. “I was already going to school full-time at Bronx Community College and working full-time, and I had my daughter, so it just didn’t seem like something I could do.”

But that perception didn’t sit well at Vassar, where liberal-arts’ principles of citizenship implore schools to cultivate a student body reflective of the world in which its graduates will live. “There is something inherent in the values of a liberal-arts education that forces institutions to embrace those values, to be as inclusive as possible,” Ben Lotto, Vassar’s Posse Veterans liaison and the dean of studies, said.

Vassar had demonstrated a commitment to that mission with other populations: During Hill’s tenure, students of color increased from 25 to 41 percent, and the number of admitted freshmen receiving Pell grants—a government subsidy granted to students whose family incomes fall below $40,000—tripled. To Hill, a Yale-educated economist and expert on higher-education affordability, the mandate to broaden the college’s reach also stemmed from the large amount of federal financial support private nonprofit colleges receive. “Part of the justification of subsidizing higher education is our country’s commitment to equal opportunity and social mobility,” Hill explained. “It seems to me that if our institutions are going to accept large amounts of subsidies from taxpayers, then we ought to be committed to doing that.”

Those subsidies, coupled with Vassar’s $928.8 million endowment and 92 percent six-year graduation rate, offer veterans a greater chance of degree attainment than the 53.6 percent average student-veteran completion rate found by the National Veteran Education Success Tracker. This is especially true for the nearly 35 percent of veterans who attend two-year institutions, where an average of 15 percent of full-time students receiving GI Bill money graduated with a two-year degree in 2014. “The probability of actually getting a degree is so much lower if you start at a community college just because they have so fewer resources per student than at more selective schools,” Hill said. “You get more devoted to you if you can go to a better-resourced school.”

Still, the four-year graduation rate of Vassar’s first veteran cohort, 63.6 percent, falls well below the 85.8 percent four-year graduation rate of school’s Class of 2015. After two student-veterans used transfer credits to graduate a year early in 2016, only seven of the 11 members of Vassar’s inaugural Posse Veterans class made it to graduation day within the typical four-year timeframe—one is expected to graduate at a later date, and three dropped out altogether. But Vassar’s graduation rate for veterans does exceed the national average, and subsequent Posse Veteran cohorts offer more promising outcomes: At Wesleyan, which began its Posse Veterans initiative the year after Vassar, the student-veteran retention rate is 94 percent, comparable to the school’s overall rate of 95 percent.

After deciding to attend Vassar, Callender saw only one option. “I like to think that this Vassar experience is like a gamble in which I’m all in,” he said. “There is no chance for failure.”

* * *

The stakes of Callender’s gamble became apparent when he arrived on campus in August 2013. As he moved into his single room in Noyes House dormitory, someone asked if he was dropping off his child. While most Vassar freshmen relish the college’s orientation tradition of “student fellow groups”—residence-hall bonding among fresh-faced first years under a sophomore’s supervision—Callender eschewed the ritual, opting instead to hang out at the home of a fellow student-vet who lived off-campus. “It was so not working for me,” Callender recalled. “Everyone was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

Small liberal-arts schools like Vassar subsist on the premise of intimacy: Learning happens not just in the classroom, but also through the lived experiences that happen alongside peers, faculty, and administrators. Close physical proximity fosters that mission at these institutions: At Vassar, 97 percent of the 2,450 students live on campus, sharing just one dining hall, library, and gym among themselves and the 70 percent of Vassar’s 300 faculty members who live on or near campus. The intellectual and social environment rewards students who are habituated to the relationships its structures facilitate, but for student-veterans and other students whose life circumstances less cleanly fit the archetypal liberal-arts’ student mold, that closeness can feel more suffocating than supportive.

But the tight-knit network built through the liberal-arts’ premise provides the relationships and institutional knowledge that helps student-veterans thrive. During Callender’s uncomfortable early days on campus, Lotto, the Posse Veterans liaison, adopted that role when he spotted Callender beyond the campus gates, marched him back to the fourth floor of his dormitory, and introduced him to the co-eds he’d be living alongside. Four years later, embracing the rituals of residential life proved helpful to Callender as he navigated a setting whiter and more affluent than any he had previously encountered. “In hindsight, it was definitely something that was valuable,” he said. “It was hard for me to find a point of entry.”

Callender recognized the benefit of leaning on administrators like Lotto early on. But that was harder for other student-veterans, whose military experiences can pose challenges to developing those kinds of dependent relationships. The Vassar associate chemistry professor Teresa Garrett, who served as a faculty advisor to a subsequent Posse Veteran cohort, observed that veterans tended to resource horizontally from one another, not from the administrators and faculty best suited to assist them. “They’re going to go to each other and find what they need, be scrappy, but not go up the ranks,” she said.

“The military culture’s very much like, ‘We don’t care about your problems, give us results,’” said de la Torre. “The reality is: They don’t care [about the person]unless it gets in the way of the mission. Here, the mission is the person, the person’s personal growth.”

For de la Torre, who became a Vassar freshman and father in the same year, overcoming military conditioning that emphasized lines of demarcation between ranks helped him befriend Vassar’s junior faculty, who, by virtue of their age, de la Torre felt more kinship with than his peers. “We kind of equally felt the same thing, which is nervousness and trying to get our work done and trying to be a parent balancing the work life,” he said.

But not all military tendencies stood in the way of Vassar’s student-veterans as they navigated an intimate campus. A predisposition to camaraderie and supporting one another as members of a larger cohort—which a 2013 National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ study found was integral to their success—allowed them to create their own first network. Michael Smith, a rising Wesleyan senior and member of the school’s first Posse Veterans cohort, said that mindset is what’s helped his inaugural Posse maintain a 100 percent retention rate. “We recognize, individually, we have taken our own experience here at Wesleyan and we’re doing with it what we will, [but]there’s a responsibility to the larger group,” he said.

* * *

De la Torre came to campus with an occupation in mind: He’d planned to pick up his pre-med studies where he’d left off at Texas A&M. But at a liberal-arts school that loosens  curricular requirements as a way of encouraging broad exploration, chemistry class couldn’t hold de la Torre’s attention as he surveyed school’s interdisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society program.

To Curtis Dozier, the Vassar Greek and Roman studies professor who’s served as de la Torre’s veteran faculty mentor, de la Torre’s growth represents the apogee of a broad liberal-arts education. “When they start to see the way that different forms of knowledge and different methodologies can inform each other and bring different points of view to bear on questions,” he said, “that’s just so satisfying.”

In this way, the liberal arts demands a shift away from some military mindsets. “It’s such a different way of learning, being expected to think independently, which my brain had never been geared for,” said Benton Leary, a Navy veteran who’s a rising sophomore at Williams College, comparing his Williams’ education to the military, where he felt his opinions weren’t as welcomed.

Fernando Braga, a 34-year-old Army veteran, unwaveringly leaned into history and Chinese language courses for his international-studies major. For him, growth has been through the quality of the education paired with liberal-arts’ modes of inquiry. Comparing to his time at Hunter College, the largest school of the City University of New York’s system with a six-year bachelor’s degree graduation rate around 56 percent, Braga characterizes his Vassar education as “in the most positive sense of the word, a privileged experience.”

“I feel like I can do things that I could not do before I arrived here,” he explained, likening his skill acquisition to a scene in The Matrix in which the protagonist Neo instantly learns kung fu. “I express myself way more clearly than I could before, I can write at a level that I couldn’t before, I can speak Chinese.”

Vassar’s broad curricular offerings also offered new ways for student-veterans to understand their military experiences. Among the courses de la Torre sampled, a cognitive-science course and a class on the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud helped him make sense of the PTSD symptoms he experiences. The Vassar history professor Maria Höhn, whose scholarship focuses on the U.S. military, notes the difficult but transformative experiences she witnessed among the Vassar veterans who took her American-studies course. “What they do in my class is really look at the structure of the U.S. military, its history, and what it means,” she says. “It forces them to think about their military service [in a way]that’s very different than they ever thought about.” Braga, who who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom II and took two courses with Höhn, credits her classes with helping him develop a nuanced perspective on the sometimes beneficial exercise of American military power after initially holding anti-war views after his deployment.

But course subjects aren’t the only place where student-veterans have the opportunity to confront military narratives—in Vassar’s trademark discussion-based roundtable seminars, for example, students are known to hold uncompromisingly progressive views. That campus ethos presented a point of contention when the school announced the Posse Veterans initiative. “To be honest, the reaction of students was like, ‘They’re all right-wing conservatives and we don’t want them here,’” Hill said in recalling some of the students’ responses.

“Everyone is howling for seats, but no one’s howling for veterans.”

Heather Kettlewell, a Vassar junior majoring in international-studies, appreciates the student-veterans contributions in her political-science classes. “Sometimes classroom discussions can get really homogenous, and the vets are able to add a completely different perspective that I think Vassar students don’t hear,” she said. “There can be a lot of army hating and anti-war that gets projected onto the soldiers themselves.” Citing a recent classroom conversation in which a student-veteran discussed her role in helping to build community infrastructure during a deployment, Kettlewell she learned about “a whole side of the military that doesn’t get discussed. It’s good that it humanizes these people who can be demonized.”

To Garrett, the Vassar chemistry professor, student-veterans’ identities offer hope for bridging divides. “As vets, going out in this world, their ability to translate this experience to a group, a different part of our world and our country, is really critical,” she said. De la Torre’s next endeavor, establishing a community bank for disabled veterans, is a manifestation of that translation. The project will rely on both the economics skills he developed as a Vassar student, and the military know-how he’s arrived at through personal experience. It’ll also offer him the chance to apply the operational modes he’s acquired. “My military experience is grounded on doing—you’ve got to get results immediately,” he explained. “And then my liberal-arts education is about the theoretical and how to apply it from the different perspectives and looking at the big picture. So the balance between the two has, at least in my opinion, has positioned me to apply that to pretty much anything I’m trying to do.”

* * *

As each member of Vassar’s graduating class marched across the campus’s outdoor amphitheater at last month’s commencement, Braga and de la Torre were again juxtaposed with their peers. This time, however, the contrast was their choice: Braga’s 4-year-old daughter and de la Torre’s 2- and 4-year-old daughters accompanied their fathers as they received their diplomas. Bringing them along had been a last-minute decision, but in hindsight, the gesture epitomized their achievements. “She’s old enough to remember commencement,” Braga said of his daughter, who spent the first years of her life dancing to musical performances on Vassar’s residential quad and riding her bike on sidewalks typically traversed by hurried students. As someone who grew up feeling less academically capable than his peers, “I wanted graduating college to be her normal in a way that it never was for me.”

Patrick Hood, a Vassar graduate and Posse veteran, with the Vassar registrar Colleen Mallet at the Posse Veteran graduation ceremony (Lee Ferris)

They achieve not only for themselves and their families, but also for would-be student veterans everywhere. Graduating in that sense amounts to what de la Torre characterized as “selfless service,” something his fellow graduation Army veteran Patrick Hood captured in remarks during a Posse Foundation ceremony the night before commencement. “It is important to remember those we served with who don’t get to participate in these milestones,” he shared with the families, Posse Foundation employees, and Vassar community members gathered.

Who will be able to share in the experience Vassar’s now-alumni veterans enjoyed isn’t clear. Since Vassar’s inaugural Posse Veterans cohort, only two other schools, Wesleyan and Dartmouth, have signed on as partners, even though the Posse Foundation founder Deborah Bial said the program could expand to at least 10 schools. Of those 87 veterans identified in Sloane’s survey, Vassar and Wesleyan’s Posses contributed 62 of them. Sloane explains the dearth in terms of market pressures. Elite schools with healthy endowments aren’t compelled to seek out GI Bill benefit-touting student-vets, and so many others already lobby for precious spots in small classes: Sports teams recruit athletes, alumni plea for their children, and academic departments ask for the best students. “Everyone is howling for seats, but no one’s howling for veterans,” he said. The advocacy, then, emanates largely from those who have already demonstrated a commitment to this initiative, like Hill and Wesleyan president Michael Roth.

Of course, the work of diversity can be daunting. “You have to roll up your sleeves, be willing to wade in, be willing to endure the stresses and the strains, the misunderstandings, but constantly have trust in each other that the place will come out better,” said Lotto, reflecting on the four-year journey Vassar and its first class of student veterans took. But Vassar offers proof that the work is worthwhile. “We’re a better campus, the [Posse Veterans] program is a better program, because of that.”

For now, the graduating members of Vassar’s first Posse veteran cohort have done their part to illustrate success. For those who now hold Vassar diplomas, in the words of Callender, they’ve lived up his expectations not only “to graduate, but to be great.”

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