Date November 10, 2022
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U.S. Navy veteran dives deep into Brown’s Open Curriculum

From environmental science and astrophysics to photography and mentorship opportunities, student veteran Terren Wise is charting a new course at Brown after nine years of military service.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Terren Wise opened his acceptance letter to Brown, he had to read it several times to process what it said — and even then, it was hard to believe was real. 

“I opened it up, and it said, ‘Congratulations,’” Wise said. “I was like, ‘That’s a very rude way to reject someone!’”

After all, the path that led the 30-year-old Minnesota native to Providence was long and intense — preceded by nine years of service in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear submarine mechanic.

The letter? A rejection, it was not. The reality didn’t sink in until he was on College Hill, attending his first courses as a Resumed Undergraduate Education and transfer student at Brown. 

Just two months after his first day of classes, Wise is now set to deliver the student veteran keynote speech at Brown University’s annual Veterans Day ceremony on Friday, Nov. 11. 

“Brown is a great school where I can be a vet and people will listen to my story,” Wise said.

When Wise first enrolled at the University of Minnesota after graduating high school, “it didn’t go well,” he said. The experience led him to join the U.S. Navy, traveling the world as a nuclear mechanic on submarines.

“Although I really was passionate about what I did, I had also been doing the same job for about nine years,” Wise said. “When someone tells you that you have to do something, that you have to study something, that you have to work for something, over and over and over — it makes you want to explore other interests.” 

How do you eat an elephant?

Wise made the decision to transition to civilian life and head back to school, but it wasn’t smooth sailing. The first year, he applied to 11 different colleges and universities. He received 11 rejections. Instead of giving up, or heading straight into the workforce or back into the military, he kept seeking opportunities to bolster his applications through the nonprofit Service to School's VetLink Program, which provides free application mentoring and networking to veterans. 

“My mom used to say, ‘How do you eat an elephant? … One bite at a time,’ and it always stuck with me,” Wise said. “Worst case scenario, I’m in the same spot I’m in now, so why not go out there and keep trying?” 

Wise enrolled in community college, attended academic bootcamps hosted by the Warrior Scholar Project, completed internships — including Yale’s Research Experience for Veteran Undergraduates, in which he took part in nine weeks of summer research in quantum mechanics and astrophysics — and kept applying to schools. “And here I am,” he said. 

Though Wise said he’s taking things one bite at a time, there’s still plenty on his plate.

I want to be able to help someone get through school and show them where I’m coming from. I’m a veteran, I’m biracial, I’m first-generation low-income. If I can get here, anybody can get here.

Terren Wise Brown undergraduate student and U.S. Navy veteran
Image of Terren Wise in Brown sweatshirt

“Because I was on a submarine for so long, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of time,” he said. “I want to do as much as I can and take advantage of all that Brown has to offer.”

Wise’s first-semester courseload is packed with physics, computer science, calculus II and environmental science — “it’s been humbling,” he said — but he’s also joined the University’s growing Student Veteran Society, a photography club, an astrophysics club and the Campus Life Student Advisory Board. He hasn’t yet declared a concentration, because he wants to continue to explore what’s available and develop a renewed sense of identity after “starting over,” something he says many veterans struggle with. 

“There’s a more holistic approach to who I am now,” Wise said. “I can be whoever I want to be. I’m not just Terren the Submariner or the vet. My story is more than that … I’m Terren the guy who also loves baking, who loves playing Minecraft and going across the world to different countries.” 

Transitioning from service to school 

The transition from military to civilian life can be difficult enough, but when you factor in school, it becomes even tougher, Wise said. 

In addition to losing the structure and purpose that accompanies military service, veterans who choose to head back to school rather than immediately joining the workforce are often losing out on much-needed income. 

Though academics were his priority, Wise said he narrowed his choices down to schools that offered a Yellow Ribbon scholarship. The G.I. Bill covers a certain amount of a veteran’s education expenses, but not all — the Yellow Ribbon scholarship matches the G.I. Bill, which greatly offsets costs.  

As part of Brown’s initiative to double the number of student veterans enrolled as undergraduates, the University reworked its financial aid packages for veterans, which now replace all family contributions with scholarship funds and boost Yellow Ribbon scholarship awards, eliminating all out-of-pocket costs toward undergraduate tuition and fees. 

Wise said it was refreshing and a “welcomed weird” to have Brown tell him that he could work if he wanted to, but he didn’t need to — that being a student was his job now. To him, it proved that Brown valued his experience as a veteran, but still wanted to grant him the academic freedom he was searching for as a student.  

“If I never told anyone I was a vet, it would still be just as fun,” Wise said. “It’s balanced, and I deliberately chose that.”

Brown’s emphasis on social consciousness was another reason Wise was drawn to College Hill. From tutoring grade school students to starting a nonprofit with his own money in middle school to help Minneapolis’s homeless residents get access to transportation, helping others has always been his top passion. 

After making the move to civilian — and academic — life, that passion has only grown. His sights are set on establishing new mentorship opportunities for people transitioning out of the military and for children whose schooling was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I want to be able to help someone get through school and show them where I’m coming from,” Wise said. “I’m a veteran, I’m biracial, I’m first-generation low-income. If I can get here, anybody can get here.”