The admissions officer from the well known and highly-selective college was frank with me on the phone. “We don’t really admit nontraditional profiles like you,” he said. “I suggest you try somewhere else.”
I thanked him, hung up the phone, and sat down on the bed of my childhood room. I had just received my honorable discharge from the United States Marine Corps as a Sergeant, moved back in with my parents, and begun my search for the college that would help me earn my piece of the American dream.
I looked at myself in the mirror on my dresser over piles of books and dusty trophies and considered the admissions officer’s feedback.
I thought about how hard I had worked, my high standardized test scores, and the straight A’s I was earning in Community College. My gaze rested on my sweatshirt, emblazoned with the name of the college that had just told me that, as a 25-year old veteran, I needn’t bother applying. Why did they make me feel like my military service was a weakness, not a strength?
I’ve always pushed myself to be the best. I joined the Marines for the challenge, to grow through adversity, to lead troops, and to serve my country. I emerged stronger and more determined. By serving, I had earned my precious G.I. Bill, which made every college in the country affordable.
In order to make the most of it, I wanted the best education I could get. The Marines had taught me to aim high.
Days after arriving at my parents’ house and unpacking my sea bags, I dug up my academic files from my high school years and got to work. I knew I was smart and capable. And a wealth of experience in the military prepared me to be a leader on campus.
I enrolled in my local Community College and worked hard to prove I had what it takes. I had great letters of recommendation from my former supervisors and one of my professors. I felt I had a decent shot at my dream schools.
It was a shock, then, when school after school from my wish list seemed baffled by my applications. Some openly admitted to me they didn’t consider “older students” to “be a good fit.” Others placed obstacles in my path, like requiring one of my recommendations come from my original high school guidance counselor, who I discovered had long since retired and moved to Florida where I was unable to track her down.
The rules for applying to colleges were designed for a 17-year old High School student who fit neatly within their metrics and parameters. As one of the very few Americans who served in uniform, I was just an anomaly, an outlier.
Veterans like me were slipping through the cracks without the colleges even noticing.
I didn’t give up. I worked closely with my mentors and targeted my efforts towards the schools which seemed more likely to understand my background and accept me. I slaved over my admissions essays for months in order to tell my story within the confines of short word-limits and prompts asking me things like “what I did over my summer vacation.”
Now I am at Columbia University, finishing up my second year. I’m fortunate, and my hard work paid off, despite all the obstacles and challenges facing veterans, because I carried forward the determination I learned in the Marine Corps. The Marines taught me to strive to meet the highest standards.
As a veteran, I do the same in school. To other veterans, I say “don’t sell yourself short. Keep up the fight.”
Across the United States, hundreds of thousands of students working towards a bachelor’s degree are veterans like me. Many of them have the skills and drive to excel at our nation’s most challenging schools. Colleges should take a more active role in learning to understand and recognize these students’ potential.
Alexander McCoy served in the United States Marine Corps for 6 years, and deployed to Saudi Arabia, Honduras, and Germany as an embassy guard for the Department of State. He now studies political science at Columbia University in the City of New York. Alex is a Service to School Ambassador.