Vassar Stories

11 military veterans recruited by the Posse Foundation arrive for their first year at Vassar

In some ways, they’re typical incoming freshmen, excited about launching their college careers and a bit anxious about their ability to adapt to new surroundings.

David Carrell, his wife, Tori, and their children David and Lexus

But in many other ways, the 11 military veterans enrolling at Vassar this fall are different from the other 657 members of the Class of 2017. Many would not have met Vassar’s exacting academic standards when they graduated from high school, but all have achieved success since then, both in and out of military life. Most have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, often in positions of leadership, and some have been seriously wounded.

David Carrell, a 12-year veteran of the Army who was a tank commander during four tours in Iraq before a back injury forced him to retire, says he believes his military training and experience will help him embrace the challenges and opportunities he will encounter at Vassar.

“Sometimes when you’re in a firefight, it’s good to take what we call a tactical pause, to step back for a moment and see what’s confronting you before you decide on your next course of action,” Carrell says. “That’s what I’m doing as I prepare for my first semester. I keep hearing people say we’ll be an asset to the college, but I’m looking forward to learning all I can, not only from the faculty but also from the students. Maybe I can use my life experience to help them, but they all have knowledge I don’t have, and they can help me too.” Read Carrell’s USA Today essay on his path to Vassar here.

The veterans, eight men and three women, were selected after undergoing a rigorous screening process through the Posse Foundation, a New York City-based organization that helps place low-income and non-traditional students at prestigious colleges and universities. Vassar is the first college in the country to work with the Posse Foundation on identifying qualified military veterans.

Fernando Braga with his wife, Maria, and their daughter, Zafira

President Catherine Hill says she conceived the idea to form the partnership with the Posse Foundation because she believes Vassar and other prestigious colleges have an obligation to reach out to veterans and increase their numbers on campus. “We began planning for this more than two years ago, and it’s exciting they’re finally arriving and about to take classes and engage in other activities on campus,” Hill says. “We are a nonprofit institution that receives benefits from the federal government, and these veterans have assumed a huge responsibility for our country, so it seems to me we have an obligation as an institution to do this.”

The veterans, some of whom are coming with families, say they’ve been impressed with the support they’ve received from Vassar administrators as they begin their journey here. Army vet Fernando Braga, a track worker with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, moved here with his wife, Maria, and their infant daughter, Zafira. Braga says that he received some invaluable help from dean of freshmen Ben Lotto about his academics. He told Lotto he was planning to enroll in a dual engineering degree program with Dartmouth but was missing some math requirements. Lotto advised him to take some time before making a decision to consider what he really wanted out of college. After asking himself a few questions, Braga says he realized his true passion is international relations.

“It’s something I’ve been interested in all my life – I read Foreign Affairs magazine all the time and I love watching podcasts on international issues.” he says. “Without ever saying it, Ben steered me to what I really want to do. He spent a lot of time helping me ask myself the right questions so that I came up with my own answer. That seems to be the Vassar way of doing things.”

Lotto says the interaction he had with Braga was not all that different from conversations he’s had in the past with freshmen from more traditional backgrounds.

“Sure, the veterans come here with some unique issues, but you can say the same thing about a lot of other students,” he says. “We’re trained to work with them – to identify their strengths and help them deal with any obstacles they may have to overcome. That’s what we do, and I have faith in everyone on this campus to help any student solve whatever problems may arise.”

—Larry Hertz

Photos by Carlisle Stockton

Posted Saturday, August 31, 2013