Date November 2, 2017
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Veterans increasingly finding an academic home at Brown

Though still underrepresented, military veterans say the University values their experiences and has supported growth in enrolling veterans and making campus a place where they realize their academic aspirations.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Interspersed across Brown’s campus on College Hill are 18 students who bring particularly invaluable experiences and perspectives to their studies. As military veterans, they have participated in historical events and encountered cultures that most other students may have only learned about in the news, the movies or assigned class readings.

As a combat engineer in the U.S. Marines, for example, Michael Muir trained with the French Foreign Legion in the Sahara Desert, alongside fellow military members in the Philippines and South Korea, and with the British Royal Navy. Tristan Hood participated in a humanitarian mission to help Haiti and served two tours in the Air Force in Baghdad, helping to run logistics and shipping to keep supplies flowing. He also faced the solemn task of sending fallen soldiers home on their final “angel flights.”

Muir, Hood and fellow veterans on campus bring these experiences to the classrooms at Brown.

Before taking a class this semester in Politics of the Illicit Global Economy, Aimee Chartier was an intelligence specialist in the Marines,who had among other tasks gathered and analyzed information to support the interdiction of drugs headed across U.S. borders. Likewise, before the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe came up for discussion in his Humans and the Environment class, former reconnaissance Marine Joel Fudge had actually served there on a post-disaster assistance mission.

What veterans contribute to campus is uncommon — but what they have in common is that early in their college searches, none of them thought they could attend Brown. In each case, had it not been for a mentor on their military base or at a community college, these student veterans said they would never have known or believed that there was a path for them through the Van Wickle Gates.  

Chartier and Fudge, who are married, credit Community College of Rhode Island Professor Carol Panaccione with urging them to consider Brown. Hood heard that advice from a mentor whose daughter attended Brown. For Muir, it was becoming involved in the group Service to School that sparked an Ivy League dream come true.

But now that they are here, their message to fellow service members as Veterans Day approaches (the University’s annual ceremony takes place on Friday, Nov. 10) is that those who have served in the military are becoming ever more welcome at Brown.

“The current state of things at Brown, I think, are in a much better spot than they were even one year ago,” Muir said. “I couldn’t imagine what it was like even five years ago when Brown had only a single-digit number of veterans. We’ve increased our veteran population, and the University has committed to continuing to increase it. We have awesome support networks.”

Forward march

Earlier this fall, Brown President Christina Paxson voiced the University’s commitment loud and clear when she spoke to veterans from across the Ivy League’s eight campuses at a meeting of the Ivy League Veterans Council. Brown earned the chance to host the gathering, said Muir, who represents Brown in the council and organized the event, because of its recent progress.

In an era where less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, Paxson said, veterans bring new perspectives to the diversity of viewpoints that call the Brown campus home. Through their service, veterans have demonstrated a commitment to the greater good and causes bigger than themselves, which aligns closely with Brown’s pervasive spirit of social consciousness. And given their frequent experiences working to overcome challenges during their military service, veterans bring intellectual creativity and distinctive approach to problem-solving.

“Veterans are already innovators and people with specialized real-world knowledge,” Paxson said. “Because they have served in so many ways, veterans add much to our unique learning environment. We want veterans on College Hill — and once they are here, we want them fully engaged in the Brown experience.”

In her remarks at the Ivy League Veterans Council, Paxson shared details on some of the recent steps the University has taken to increase the number of student veterans and to improve their experiences on campus.

As of this fall, Brown waives application fees for veterans, and all veteran applicants are guaranteed an admissions interview. In September, the University dedicated a new suite of two rooms just south of the College Green for the exclusive use of veterans and students in the commissioning programs like the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). This can be especially important for student veterans who live off campus, Muir said.

Earlier this year, Brown signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense that will allow the University to recruit on military bases, said Karen McNeil, program director for student veterans and commissioning programs. Previously, Brown could not have a presence where many military members who were developing plans for life after their service were considering whether and where to apply to college.

As the number of qualified veteran applications has increased, McNeil said, the University has accepted veterans both through the Resumed Undergraduate Education program, and through transfer admissions. Veterans have the option to live on or off campus, an important bit of flexibility for veterans with families.

As a result of Brown’s recent efforts, the number of student veterans has grown from 11 in 2014 with only one new student enrolling, McNeil said, to 18 this year with eight newly enrolled this fall.

McNeil’s position, which has existed since 2014, remains a rarity on Ivy League campuses. With the exception of Columbia, which has an entire school dedicated to returning and nontraditional students, Ivy League universities and their peers have had disproportionately low representation of veterans for years.

The reasons for those low enrollment numbers are many, McNeil said.

To start, given the selectivity of Brown and its peers, many veterans don’t consider the possibility feasible, she said. Unlike high school students, veterans don’t have guidance counselors and aren’t living in the context of a group of peers applying to college at the same time. Meanwhile, the degree of benefit provided by the G.I. Bill, which hadn’t been all that strong before 2001, increased substantially again after 9/11.

And finally, as Paxson acknowledged in her remarks to the Ivy League Veterans Council, history and politics —during the Vietnam War, for instance — have sometimes driven a wedge further into the civilian-military divide, especially on college campuses.

In recent years, Brown and other schools have started to turn that tide. Last year, the University reinstated ties with Naval and Air Force ROTC programs. In June, McNeil convened a first-ever conference among university administrators from Brown’s peer institutions to share best practices in addressing the needs of military applicants and students. 

McNeil notes that much of the progress at Brown has come about because of the advocacy of veteran students themselves. Hood, who is president of Brown’s Student Veterans Society, and Muir are frequently in touch with the University’s senior leaders. Hood said that will continue among the newer crop of veterans after he graduates this spring.

“Right now we are in the infant stage, but laying the foundation with the administration and with other students now is what secures the future for veterans at Brown,” he said.

Hood and McNeil agree that they’d like to accomplish more. The number of veterans on campus should continue to increase, particularly the number of women veterans and veterans of color, who remain even more underrepresented at Brown than veterans overall, McNeil said.

‘Best of both worlds’

Once veterans gain admission, Hood said, an array of both opportunities and challenges await them. Often a decade or more past high school, and only sometimes coming to Brown from community college, veterans often have considerable adjustments to make. Re-engaging with advanced math classes like calculus, for example, can be difficult.

And, Hood notes, unlike students immediately removed from high school, veterans don’t always see college as an inevitable next phase of their lives. They’ve already had jobs. Some have children. After leaving the Air Force, Hood ran a successful rental business in Florida, which he sold to come to Brown. But he knows another former student veteran who ultimately opted to leave school to go back to her business.

Sometimes, there are discouraging encounters — last year’s vandalism to flags on the eve of Veterans Day, for example.

It’s no surprise that military operations can be controversial, Hood said; but every story has multiple sides. In some cases, there may be misperceptions of military affairs, and the precise role of an individual veteran within a broader military campaign, he said, can be assumed too simplistically.

Overall, Hood, Muir, Chartier and Fudge said, their experiences on campus have been positive. Most students at Brown, upon discovering that they are veterans, are cordial and curious. They often ask questions, which serves to narrow that civilian-military divide; Muir cites a recent example when a classmate invited him out for coffee to learn more upon discovering his history of service.

Fudge, whose time in the U.S. Marines learning how to parachute in behind enemy lines and remain undetectable for days qualify him as an expert outdoorsman, made fast friends upon his arrival this fall by participating in Brown Outdoor Leadership Training. Chartier said that as new students, she and Fudge have made friends and forged other relationships not only within the military-affiliated student community, but also within the rest of the student body.

“I’m meeting friends in my classes and having study sessions,” Chartier said. “We have the best of both worlds.”

By welcoming veterans to campus, Brown is indeed opening up a wider window on the world for all students.