Former enlisted military veterans are not traditionally who one might expect to find in attendance at a top-tier university. In fact, most enlisted folks themselves wouldn’t even consider it a possibility. Fortunately, there has been a major shift over the last decade, both in how veterans envision their future in higher education and in how elite academic institutions understand the value of having these veterans on their campuses. The University of Chicago is one such institution that is pioneering a comprehensive approach to having enlisted veterans among their undergraduate student population.
In 2017, after attending an academic boot camp for transitioning veterans called the Warrior Scholar Project, I decided I wanted to wrap up my second tour as an enlisted linguist in the United States Navy and finally complete my college journey, albeit 12 years after it began. While on active duty, I obtained my associate’s degree from the Defense Language Institute and used military tuition assistance to take classes at a local community college. I also began searching for every bit of information I could find regarding veterans in higher education. I quickly came to realize that veterans just like me were being accepted to top schools around the country and if they could do it, so would I. Thus began my venture into the lengthy college admissions process which, fortunately and thanks to the help of more than one veteran non-profit, ended with my acceptance to the University of Chicago (UChicago) as the sole female among an inaugural cohort of 14 military veterans.
Founded in 1890, the University of Chicago is one of the most renowned research universities in existence. It’s breakthroughs in economics, science, and medicine have changed the world and among it’s faculty, students, staff, and researchers it boasts 100 Nobel laureates. Known for its commitment to academic rigor, intellectual inquiry, and free speech, UChicago consistently ranks among the top 6 national universities. Prior to our arrival there was a singular U.S. military veteran in its undergraduate College. The administration, however, had done their homework and was fully prepared to support our needs with their unique approach to veterans services. “UChicago takes a holistic approach to Veterans Services with a one-stop-shop model that provides admission support and access including a customized application process, dedicated career counseling and programming, academic advising, social programming, tailored financial aid, unique housing, and student support services,” explains Beau Butts, Associate Director of Veterans Services at the University of Chicago.
As an upcoming second-year student veteran at UChicago, I can speak first-hand to the effectiveness of this “holistic approach.” Through building and maintaining a relationship with the prospective student veteran before, throughout, and after the application process -and by partnering with non-profits like the Warrior Scholar Project, Service to School, and Next Step Inbound – UChicago empowers the veteran or soon-to-be veteran to find the best fit for them, whether that is at UChicago or another academic institution. This model isn’t designed to recruit and enroll as many veterans as possible, but rather to match veterans with the schools that are best suited to their needs, interests, and academic abilities in order to streamline their transition into higher education.
For the veterans -referred to as Veteran Scholars- who do gain acceptance to the highly-selective University of Chicago, Butts and the Veterans Services office are there to provide academic preparation through a pre-orientation program designed to maximize their potential. “The program also connects our Veteran Scholars to VA services, offers an introduction to career programming coupled with professional development opportunities, and builds relationships between students,” says Butts. Coupled with the dedicated academic and career advising provided throughout all four years, a customized near-campus housing option, and generous financial aid, the program uniquely sets the veteran up for a smooth academic and personal transition to campus life. Additionally, later this year UChicago will be posting a dedicated application for veterans that will include a rolling admissions decision.
The impact of this “holistic approach” is evident in the number of veterans who will be attending UChicago in 2020 as part of its second cohort of undergraduate Veteran Scholars. The Class of 2024 will include 20 veterans, three of whom are female, and this Fall, the student veteran population at UChicago will include representation from all 5 branches of the U.S. Military and occupations ranging from Infantry and Special Forces to logistics and linguistics.
Before the arrival of COVID-19, I remember walking across the University of Chicago campus with my backpack over my shoulder, coffee in my hand, and a smile across my face. As I looked around at the Gothic architecture and observed the passing, youthful faces of my classmates from all over the world, I was struck with a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for where I was now compared to where I had been for the last 10 years of military service, and gratitude for the opportunity provided to me by such a prestigious institution of higher learning. By fully welcoming, celebrating, and holistically supporting enlisted veterans in their pursuit of higher education, the University of Chicago is building a hopeful future for all veterans and helping bridge the civil-military gap.