Ceremony recognizes graduating veterans, honors new captain, celebrates ROTC rebirth

In a joyous ceremony complete with a marriage proposal from one new U.S. Army officer to another from last year’s class of graduates, Brown celebrated its students’ commitment to the armed forces.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Members of the Brown community gathered on Saturday, May 27, during Commencement and Reunion Weekend to honor students who have dedicated themselves not only to a Brown education, but also to serving their country as members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Graduating Veterans Recognition and Commissioning Ceremony honored 14 veterans who have served in combat and other capacities across the globe, and who tomorrow will receive University degrees. The event also marked the commissioning of a new U.S. Army officer and the recognition of two first-year undergraduates who represent the renewal of Navy and Air Force ROTC programs at Brown.

“Among the reasons we gather today is to affirm once again our readiness to serve,” Brown President Christina Paxson said to the crowd gathering on the Front Green. “We are proud at Brown of the unbroken narrative of Brown men and women serving in the Armed Forces of the United States of America from the Revolutionary War to Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Captain Aranda

Marcos Aranda was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army, and tomorrow he’ll receive his M.D. from Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Aranda said he has mixed emotions as he stands ready to start a new chapter in his life as a surgical resident at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Georgia.

“I’m nervous and excited at the same time,” he said. “It’s like running toward the cold water when you’re doing a polar plunge.”

Aranda first came to Brown as an undergraduate in the Program in Liberal Medical Education. When he was a junior, he decided to join the Army under the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which offers tuition support and a stipend for medical school. The decision was inspired by Aranda’s younger brother who also joined the Army around that time. But also, Aranda says, the idea of being a military surgeon resonates with his view of what being a physician is, and fits with his Catholic faith.

“According to the Geneva Conventions, you’re supposed to take care of the enemy just as you would your own,” he said. “You’re literally showing love for your enemy. I think that’s a unique opportunity.”

Aranda is also looking forward to living among his fellow soldiers at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

“Being on a military base is one of my favorite environments,” he said. “It’s a tight-knit community where everybody is looking out for each other. That’s one of the great things about the military.”

But for Aranda, it wasn’t just the next phase of his military and medical career that began today. After receiving his commission, the new captain stepped off the stage and saluted Brown medical student Uzoamaka Okoro, who received her commission as an Army second lieutenant at last year’s ceremony. Then Aranda knelt before Okoro and asked her hand in marriage. She said yes, drawing cheers and a few happy tears from family and friends in attendance.

Graduating Veterans

The ceremony also honored 14 student veterans — 12 graduate students and two undergraduates — who will receive degrees this weekend.

“Our graduating student veterans have served in military theaters around the world in many capacities including combat,” Paxson said. “Here at Brown, they’ve studied everything from playwriting to biotechnology to philosophy and so much more. We thank you today for your past service and what you’ve shared with us: your courage, your wisdom and your unique perspectives.”

This year’s cohort of student veterans was especially large. Six graduated in each of the last two years, and only two in 2014. Next year’s total is expected to double this year’s. Karen McNeil, program director for the Office of Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs, says that the high number is due in part to the University’s increased outreach and recruiting efforts among veterans.

One of this year’s graduating veteran honorees, Christopher Baker, has been on campus long enough to see the resurgence of military programs at Brown take place. He’s also played an active role in making it happen. This ceremony marked the third time Baker has been honored as a student veteran, having previously received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown. With the Class of 2017, he earns his Ph.D. in biotechnology.

Baker, a U.S. Navy veteran from Warwick, R.I., first came to Brown in 2007 after having served as a nuclear reactor operator aboard the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). He entered Brown through the Resumed Undergraduate Education program after completing an associate’s degree at the Community College of Rhode Island.

When he arrived, he was one of only four veterans in the Brown student body. The foursome quickly banded together to form what would become the Brown University Student Veterans Society. The group was instrumental in pushing for the formation of the formation of the Office of Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs, which now provides support and guidance to the military community at Brown. Baker says the group also worked to make the University a more welcoming place for veterans.

“There were so few veterans on campus at that time,” Baker said, “and there were a lot of little things that were disheartening for a veteran to see.”

One that stood out to Baker was the condition of Soldier’s Arch, the monument just off Thayer Street that honors Brown students killed during WW-I. It had fallen into disrepair. The nameplates of those who had given their lives in combat were crumbling to the sidewalk.

Baker wanted to do something about it. He wrote a letter to Ruth Simmons, Brown’s president at the time, expressing his concern. She wrote back personally and allocated $80,000 for a restoration effort in which Baker played a key role.

“We got in touch with a stonemason in Fall River who found the originally quarry that the stone came from,” Baker said. “We were able to rebuild the panel with that stone, and now it’s completely restored.”

The years following that symbolic restoration have seen a renewed commitment to military programs at Brown. Last fall, Brown formally reestablished ROTC programs with the Navy and Air Force. Today’s ceremony recognized the first two students to come to Brown under those renewed partnerships: midshipmen Benjamin Chiacchia and Luc Langlois, both in the Class of 2020.

And while there were no ROTC officers commissioned this year, the addition of these new programs puts the University on pace to commission eight new officers in the Class of 2021.

That resurgence underscores Paxson’s remarks to the gathering: Brown stands ready to serve.

In addition to Baker, the other veterans graduating this weekend include: Michael Aaronson, Pamela Bower, Bryce Celotto, Laura Gallant, Carlos Gomez, Benjamin Gormley, Alexis Green, Carlos Harris, Stephanie Kerr, Nicholas Rahall, Bryan Rippee, Sabrina Uribe Ruggiero and Michael Zaskey.