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Left to right: Thaddeus Whelan, Brendan O'Hara, Jake Sawtelle at Ivy League Veterans Council in Columbia last April.


In Memory 

Opening the doors of Nassau Hall reveals an austere, dimly-lit chamber encased in white marble — the Memorial Atrium. Inscribed on the walls are the names of men who have died fighting in U.S. wars since the University was founded in 1746. Those who died in the Vietnam War are the most recent names to be added.

A Latin inscription hangs over the columns: Memoria Aeterna Retinent Alma Mater Filios Pro Patria Animas Ponentes. Translated, it says, “In eternal memory our Alma Mater holds her sons who laid down their lives for their country.”

In the near subterranean light of the windowless room, the meaning of our University motto —“In the nation’s service and in the service of humanity” — sinks like an anchor.

Leaving the room feels like escaping a tomb. Closing the door and re-entering the liveliness of a college campus again is a relief, but the atrium is hermetically sealed, sequestered from the bustle of campus and town. 

Military servicemembers are literally incorporated into the architecture and memory of this University. 

But are they here in 2018?

A Missing Minority 

Though veterans have always been part of the University and the administration, faculty, staff, and graduate student body, they have historically been absent within the undergraduate student body. Until this past fall, the University only had one veteran — who graduated last May — in the undergraduate student body.

The paucity of veterans has been a weakness in the University’s claims of featuring a diverse, well-rounded student body. In a 2012 Princeton Alumni Weekly article, critics voiced their discontent. The University has consistently trailed its Ivy League peers in veteran enrollment.

President of Student Veterans of America Michael Dakduk told Princeton Alumni Weekly in 2012, “If I could point to a university that is not doing all it could to attract veterans, I would point to Princeton.”

Veterans are generally overlooked as an underrepresented minority in elite colleges. As of November 2017, Cornell currently has 24 undergraduate veterans enrolled; Brown has 18, and has waived application fees for veterans this year; Yale has twelve 12, while Harvard has six. Inside Higher Ed conducted a survey of 36 selective schools, including the University, in November 2016. Out of the 160,000 students included in the survey, 645 of them identified as veterans — less than one percent — even though there are an estimated 22 million veterans in the country.

A study conducted by the Student Veterans of America indicated that about 52 percent of veterans completed postsecondary education after being released. But those veterans just aren’t coming here.

One reason for the lack of veterans was the discontinuation of the transfer program in 1990, which was restarted this past fall. Keith Shaw, who was hired as director for transfer programs, explained that the lack of a transfer program meant that applicants who had credits from other institutions were ineligible to be admitted because they would be considered transfer applicants.

The University is slowly changing the story. In 2013, it joined Yellow Ribbon, a government program that subsidizes tuition for veterans enrolled in private universities. That same year, it began participating in Service to Schools, a non-profit that provides free counseling to veterans applying to colleges. Two of the veterans, Tyler Eddy and Brendan O’Hara, used Service to Schools in their college application process. This summer, the University hosted the Warrior Scholar Project, a week-long boot camp to help veterans transition from the military to academia.

The fruits of this program are beginning to show. Five U.S. veterans were admitted and enrolled in the undergraduate student body as part of the Class of 2021, the first time in the modern history of the University. The five veterans are Eddy, Thaddeus Whelan, Jake Sawtelle, Brendan O’Hara, and Christopher Wilson. They range in age from 22 to 26, hail from Nashville to New Jersey, come from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, and are interested in everything from business to astrophysics. Two of them are married and live with their partners in Lakeside apartments.

Admitted before the start of the transfer program, they will be joined by seven veterans and one reservist next fall in the first year that the University has accepted transfer applicants since 1990.

This pivot to admit veterans and students from nontraditional backgrounds is motivated by a desire to expand the University’s definition of service to include military service.  

Deputy Dean of College Elizabeth Colagiuri, who served in active duty in the Navy for five years, said, “The overarching motivation for including veterans in our student population really does go to the University’s motto, ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of humanity.’”

“In a place that really elevates the importance of service,” she continued, “we want to make sure that we are also including military and former military servicemembers.”

The inclusion of veterans provides an insight into the on-the-ground realities of the wars the US has waged for over a decade. “We’ve been in a period post 9/11 where we have active conflicts going on, these are very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Colagiuri said. “And yet we you have large percentages of the population who still don’t know people who are serving on active duty.”

Shaw, the administrator in charge of the veterans’ welfare, justified the move as a way to promote a richer marketplace of ideas.

“The wars are unpopular and not especially salient. It’s not like there’s a ’60s anti-war left,” he said. “It’s harder for [war] not to be real in a class with a person for whom it was extremely real. It might force us to pay attention to some things that matter.”

This cohort of undergraduate veterans arrived with the burden to represent and pioneer a path forward for a group historically absent from campus. This past year has been a time of surprise, challenge, and learning. 

The following section features profiles of three of the five veterans and what brought them to the University.  

Where They’re From 

Eddy dropped out of college in his freshman year. He was attending Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis.

While Eddy liked learning, he felt academically directionless while in college. Feeling constrained by the routines of school, he dropped out his first year and began working as a mechanic at an auto parts shop. While learning useful skills, Eddy knew it was ultimately a dead-end. He poked his head in a military recruitment office. The military offered leadership, trade skills, and a chance to travel. He joined the Marine Corps and worked for five years as an aviation mechanic, with one year of training.

In the meantime, Eddy married his wife, Kaitlyn, welcomed a baby girl into the world, two-year-old Zoe, and naturalized into a U.S. citizen, as he was born in Canada.

A little over two years into his military service, while stationed in Camp Pendleton in California, Eddy caught sight of a big billboard advertising Yale’s Eli Whitney program. What was Yale doing in a military camp all the way out in California, he wondered.  

“Enlisted people in military getting out are not thinking ‘I can apply to an Ivy League school,’” he said. The majority of enlisted soldiers join the military without having first attended college. About 92 percent of military veterans have at most a high school degree or some college experience. Fewer than seven percent have a bachelor’s degree.

At his base’s education center, Eddy learned about a scholar leadership program that helps veterans apply to colleges. He began bumping into veteran advocates and college admissions officers at military bases, one of whom hailed from the University.

“A lot of hard working people, extremely dedicated people here, were rooting to try and get veterans to start coming here,” he said.

During the application process, the University was his dream, but he told himself that he’d be satisfied settling for a lower-ranked school. “Princeton was my shot in the dark,” he said.

He was accepted. By the time he attended Princeton Preview at the University last April, he had already committed. This year, Eddy, a 26-year-old married veteran with a toddler in tow, began college as a freshman.

***

The military was an extremely formative experience in a different way for Whelan, a sharp-spoken 22-year-old, as it enabled him to realize that he belonged in school. The military was a way out of a small town existence. He grew up up as a bright, but unmotivated student from a lower-class family in the tiny town of Springtown, Texas. Uninspired by his classes, he would sleep through them and play The Legend of Zelda. Upon graduation, rudderless and reluctant to accumulate debt from college, he enlisted in the Army as an intelligence analyst.

“People who are within military, especially the enlisted side, see the GI bill as a way out,” he said. “A lot of people join the military for the GI bill because they know that they can’t pay for college. It was one of the reasons I joined.”

He soon felt that its reliance on hierarchy and chain of command unduly constricting.

“I understand that in general, intellectualism is not nurtured in military. You are nurtured for following orders. And that was where I made my stand,” he said. “I figured that my calling was to go to school where I would actually be pressed to question things. Princeton is a place where everything is questioned.”

Whelan’s officer, a University graduate himself, recognized his mental acuity and recommended that he apply. Whelan, interested in physics, knew the University had the best physics program in the country. Figuring he had no chance of getting in, he applied and was accepted off the waitlist. By the time Whelan visited campus last April, he was acutely aware that he would be one of five veterans. 

“I somehow made it in,” he said. “I still question it, but I’m here.”

***

Wilson, a lanky 24-year-old, was born in Florida but raised in Nashville, Tenn. as a military brat. Both of his parents retired from the military; his mother served for a decade, and his father served for 20 years. Growing up, he had always admired the kind of lifestyle that his parents cultivated for their family.

“I remember living on the military base and seeing their way of life,” he said. “It was simple, it was respectful, it was orderly.” 

After high school, wanting to gain the professionalism and skills that he admired in military servicemembers and hoping to make a difference in the world, he joined the Marine Corps, ultimately spending five years there. 

While there were signs growing up that Wilson wasn’t straight, he was raised in a conservative environment where he did not know a single out gay person, so Wilson put himself in a state of deep denial. While in Monterey for military training, he finally admitted his attraction to men. At a bar, he hit it off with a stranger, and they began dating.

At first, he was afraid of having his peers discover his sexuality and was extremely guarded. After being moved to southern California for the military, separated from his partner by an eight-hour drive, he fell into depression and was encouraged to see the chaplain on base. The chaplain, after learning about his situation, told him, “All the bad in your life is because you’re gay. God is punishing you, and you’re going to hell,” Wilson said, quoting from memory. “Me being a religious person, it completely just ruined me.” He stumbled for words. “It really hurt me. I didn’t know what to think about myself. After that, I was so much more careful about everybody I tried to talk to.”

A year later, he finally summoned the courage to overcome his fear of being out. The day he showed up at Camp Pendleton, he introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Chris Wilson, I’m from Tennessee, and I’m gay,” he said. “Everybody was just like, ‘OK, yeah, good on you dude.’”

The demanding lifestyle of the military and its life-or-death stakes tended to smooth over fears or prejudices among the group, according to Wilson.

“I was always guarded about telling people, but the people I did tell, they were always supportive,” Wilson said. “The military is a brotherhood. You have to have each other’s backs, otherwise you can put somebody in danger.” He recounted the parties that would happen in the barracks every weekend — everyone was always invited. There were no worries of the exclusivity that might plague a college campus.

The environment in the Marine Corps, where men were away from their girlfriends and wives, also facilitated a few revelations. Three of his comrades eventually came out to him, two as gay and one as bisexual. All three of them had wives and children at the time.

Two days before his first deployment, he and his partner married. 

“In case I died, I wanted to make sure that he was taken care of,” Wilson said. He was deployed once in 2015 to the Middle East in Kuwait and Bahrain for nine months. He worked as a ground radio technician, fixing radios needed to maintain communication. Upon returning to the United States, he began thinking about college.

Motivated from the start, Wilson had already been taking online classes and had managed to earn two associate's degrees. Returning from deployment, he began thinking about his bachelor’s degree, and nothing was off the table.

“I thought, why not? I’m going to shoot for the best,” he said. “It’s kind of like the saying shoot for the moon, if you miss, you’re still in the stars.”

He covered all his bases and applied to thirty colleges — including all the Ivies — while spending over a year undergoing the college application process. 

After receiving his decisions, the biggest criteria for him was financial aid. Wilson identified as first-generation and low-income, and, by leaving the military, he was losing his sole source of income. His husband was also intending to enroll in graduate school, so their income was going to drastically decrease, a situation that many other veterans share when entering school.

“Financial aid was the biggest factor when it came down to choosing schools. I literally cried when I got my financial aid letter,” he said. “They were so well-prepared for us.” Wilson lives with his husband, Ray, as well as his two cats in a Lakeside apartment. 

From Soldier To Student

Sawtelle, a quiet and broad-shouldered 25-year-old from Omaha, Neb., who describes himself as a more “old country” type, remembers a specific moment in freshman orientation. The Class of 2021 was gathered for an event on recognizing diversity. Students were asked to stand when an identity marker applied to them. They were supposed to remain silent through the process, reacting neither positively nor negatively. When the veterans were asked to stand if they identified as a veteran, the five of them stood up. The auditorium erupted in applause. 

“Everybody clapped. The whole auditorium. That was amazing,” Sawtelle said.

Despite initial fears of culture shock, the veterans’ transitions have overall been remarkably smooth.

“This isn’t going to be about internal ability or merit — it’s about culture shock,” said Shaw. He meets with the veterans regularly and serves as their go-to man for any questions or concerns. “What happens when someone who hasn’t been in a classroom in a decade is suddenly in a Princeton classroom?” Shaw asked.

Last summer, in preparation for school, they either enrolled in the eight-week long Freshman Scholars Institute or an online equivalent to catch up academically after years of not being in the classroom. FSI is traditionally aimed at supporting low-income, first-generation students.

The veterans have also joined other social groups on campus. Whelan plays in band; Sawtelle plays rugby; O’Hara does crew; Wilson wrestles. They’ve become friendly with the graduate student veterans.

Despite being older, Eddy professed that the age gap didn’t prominently figure in his daily life.

“I don’t even realize that half of you guys are 18, I really don’t,” Eddy said, although he admitted that the difference in responsibility sometimes jars him. When his friends mention sleeping through their classes, he reacts out of disbelief.

“How could you possibly do that? How could you possibly sleep through your first two or three classes?” he said. “And then I think about that, I totally did that when I was 18. Don’t be a hypocrite.”

The biggest challenge for the veterans — academics — is familiar to most students. This has been exacerbated by their years away and the fact that many of them are the first in their family to attend a four year college. 

During the fall, Whelan spent nearly every day in Lewis Library, laboring over problems sets for MAT 103: Calculus I. For Sawtelle, MAT 103 was his first math class after six years of being away from a classroom. He hadn’t even reached calculus in high school.

Beyond the traditional resources, the veterans are all part of the Scholars Institute Fellows Program, a program that provides mentorship, academic enrichment, and advising primarily directed toward low-income, first generation students. “We fit right in with the SIFP crowd,” Eddy, who is a first-generation student, said.

The time away from school, however, also allowed them to reflect on their interests, values, and goals , which has translated into a cohort of unusually focused freshmen. Almost all of them know what they want to study. For Whelan, it’s science public policy. For Eddy, astrophysics. For Sawtelle, business. O’Hara has always wanted to be a doctor. Eddy has mapped out all his classes from freshman year to senior spring already.

Being a veteran and an older student can also bring challenges, such as balancing a family while being a full-time student. Sometimes, Eddy will force himself to skip a chapter of a book or delay finishing a problem to spend time with his two-year old daughter, Zoe. On Saturdays, he is in charge of taking care of her, and schoolwork falls to the side.  

“I don’t want to open my eyes and four years later, she’s six,” he said. He has been to Prospect Avenue — the hub of nightlife on campus where eating clubs host their parties — once during freshman orientation in September and hasn’t gone back since.

Five students in a body of over 5,000 could have easily splintered and dissolved into the masses, but the veterans have chosen to organize themselves into a unit. They have formally organized a Student Veterans Alliance, an undergraduate volunteer organization approved by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students that allows veterans to continue service in a space of camaraderie, an essential part of the military experience with few equivalents in civilian life. The group, they hope, will be a resource for future generations of veterans.

“They’ve responded to the pressure of having to represent their constituency by dealing with it as a group rather than a series of individuals,” Shaw said on the veterans’ organization. “They wanted to serve as an effective vanguard to figure out how the other groups that come after them can be made more comfortable.”

Their work in Student Veterans Alliance has been getting off the ground. They meet every two weeks and volunteer off-campus every semester. This past March, they volunteered to referee a basketball game for the Special Olympics.

The desire to represent veterans well hangs in tension with their desire to enter into this new stage of life without the badge and burden of service.

Eddy takes the burden of representation seriously. “I really want it to personally seem like it was a worthwhile decision to have us here,” he admitted. “A lot of people 18 to 22 might be getting their first impression of a veteran, and I want it to be a good one.”

Sawtelle, however, confided that most of his time is devoted to just being a student and trying to catch up. “In the day to day life, the service aspect kind of gets lost,” Sawtelle said.

Yet Sawtelle admitted that he would sometimes joke with the other veterans that they can’t screw up or else the school wouldn’t let any more veterans in. The desire for veterans to be represented ultimately is not about showering themselves with undue valorization but instead recognizing the multiplicity of their identities.

“The biggest thing that I want to be understood is that veterans as a whole are human,” Whelan said. “We have done what we needed to do to get by, and we want to be a part of the school. We want to be part of Princeton. And we are very glad for the opportunity that we have been given to be test group zero.”

While reactions to the veterans have been overwhelmingly positive on the surface, deeper communication and engagement regarding their experiences as veterans have been rarer. For Whelan, even when they do talk about it, language is too imprecise of a tool.

“A lot of my own experiences in [the] military don’t really translate over. I can talk about them in very loose terms,” Whelan said, “but the actual nuances of it get lost.”

A high point for the veterans came in November when the Pace Council for Civil Values held a dialogue about service and the military. The veterans discussed how military experiences have influenced their relationship to service — marking the first time that many non-military students had even thought about the military as a valid form of service. Emma Coley ’20, co-chair of PCCV, remarked that the dialogue sparked the first time she had asked herself whether the University had any veterans.

Coley, who leans toward pacifism, is reserved about how the military figures into her definition of service. Service, to her, is a relationship that moves humans closer together, pointing toward a common vision, that the military, predicated upon war, does not share. Yet she was struck by the ethos of duty that the veterans articulated. She, as someone who grew up an in Catholic Jesuit tradition of service, recognized their commitment.

“There you see a form of service which is duty-based, it’s about responsibility to one another, it’s [a ] brotherhood, a fraternal bond,” Coley said.

Some who join are often motivated out of pragmatic self-interest because of the many financial, educational, and leadership opportunities in the military. But the veterans whom the 'Prince' interviewed insisted that the service members who stick it out for years, even decades, must sincerely believe that they are serving something larger than themselves.

“You’re being asked to raise your right hand to swear to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, and implied is the willingness to lay down your life if that is what is required,” Colagiuri said.

“It is easy to overstate that and make it sound more noble than it is. It is noble...but in a gritty day to day sort of way,” said Doyle Hodges, a Navy veteran and fourth-year graduate student in the Wilson School, referring to military service. 

O’Hara’s background in military service gave him a perspective critical of the the rat race that can be a defining feature of college life where service becomes a side hobby. The idea of joining the military — a total commitment — is an unpopular, even unfathomable, option for elite college students.

“I wish more undergrads would look into service as a viable option after graduating. I’m tired of hearing about how everybody wants to go to finance and work on Wall Street,” O’Hara said.

While the veterans are no longer in uniform, the desire and duty to serve still permeates their individual and collective lives. 

At the end of March, they were huddled together around a wooden table in the Whitman College common room. Sawtelle was off to the side, doing childcare duties and entertaining Eddy’s baby girl. Eddy sat with a laptop taking notes, subtly in charge of the meeting, discussing how to secure funding to advertise at veterans conferences. O’Hara sat next to him, brainstorming ways to set up their own bank account and receive donations as a non-profit. Wilson, diagonally across the table, affably offered to design the group’s logo. Whelan interjected occasionally, reminding them to sign up for summer housing. A spirit of solidarity, a togetherness rooted in a shared mission of a creating a future for veterans at the University, was palpable.

At least two or three of the veterans eat a meal together every day, Sawtelle said. They have multiple group chats and poke fun at each other. O’Hara bashes Sawtelle for intending to major in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, a major notorious for being a pipeline to Wall Street. Sawtelle likes to poke fun at Eddy’s sense of righteousness.

Whelan hopes that the cadre of five could be a trailblazing group for veterans and non-traditional students. “One of my dreams is to be able to speak at my graduation ceremony and say, ‘I came in and there was [sic] five of us. I’m leaving and there are now 30 of us.’”

The University admitted eight servicemembers as transfers to matriculate in the  fall. It is beginning to expand the definition of diversity and of understanding of who belongs in an Ivy League school.  

Eddy, reflecting on how he got here, is still somewhat incredulous — not that he made it to the University, but that he almost never tried. Although a good student in high school and in community college, the idea of applying to the University had never occurred to him. 

“It took a ‘I can? I guess I can do that.’ That was the moment that changed my life. I’m hoping to create that moment for other people, too,” he said.

This past weekend, Sawtelle flew to San Francisco on the University’s dime to represent the University  at the Service to School’s Memorial Day Summit, a conference to assist veterans transition from military service to higher education programs. 

As the University reinstates its transfer program and includes veterans as well as other non-traditional students in its student body, it is opening a new chapter in its history, one where veterans are not merely names or stars on our walls, but part of our community, living among us.

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