From a U.S. Navy Sailor to a Yale Bulldog

To say that I was in a state of disbelief when I entered Yale in August of 2018 would probably be an understatement. While my road to college had been a long one, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, I never could have imagined that I’d ever set foot on an Ivy League campus, let alone be a student at one. Yet there I was walking through the Yale campus taking in the atmosphere and trying not to look awestruck. I don’t think I did a particularly good job hiding that though. Simultaneously, I also felt a tad out of place. I’d gotten out of the Navy in July after a decade of service and was much closer in age to the junior professors than I was to Yale undergraduates. I was reminded of this when I entered my residential college, Grace Hopper, to collect my Yale Student ID; there were more than a few perplexed looks from some of my new peers. I stood at 6’5 and was a sturdy 220 lbs and had the typical post-enlistment beard, which I promptly shaved prior to the Eli Whitney Program welcome dinner – a Yale program geared towards veterans and other non-traditional students returning to complete their undergraduate degrees.. In short, I didn’t look like the typical undergrad. I also had a serious case of imposter syndrome. I figured it was only a matter of time until some administrator figured out that they had made a mistake and I hadn’t actually been admitted, or that I wasn’t smart enough to be there. It wasn’t until that welcome dinner, which was filled with all the pomp and circumstance one might expect at such an institution, that I began to feel at home. I met my fellow Eli Whitney members, as well as a number of other administrators and professors who were excited to welcome us to campus. Seeming to know that many of us were in a state of quasi-disbelief, Dean Lisa Sodi, who heads up the program, stated in her welcome address, “Yale admissions doesn’t make mistakes.” Along with the deep sigh of relief that I wouldn’t be escorted out by some security guard on behalf of the admissions office, it hit me what I’d accomplished and how far I’d come.

Like many of you reading this, I wasn’t exactly an ideal student in high school and that is alright; it’s not where we start but where we finish that matters. In 2015, I found myself at a crossroad professionally. I was beginning to near my ten-year mark in the Navy and had returned from a deployment with an organization I’d hoped of joining years earlier. At this proverbial fork in the road, I could have returned to that organization and stayed in the Navy or I could complete my enlistment and transition out. After what felt like a thousand conversations with my wife, and other trusted friends and mentors, I decided that if there was a time for me to return to school and make a career change, this was it. Because of my weak high school academics, I needed to do some work before even thinking of a university. Through a supportive chain of command, I began taking night school classes at my local community college in order to complete the prerequisites for the University of Florida’s business program. I attacked my community college courses with intensity and dedication. I wasn’t the same student I was in high school and my military career brought out a work ethic in me that I hadn’t had back then. My day job was still demanding, and we had a baby during this period. There were plenty of days I’d rush to leave work in order to attend class, head home to help my wife with the baby, and then go back into the office to finish work. It wasn’t easy but like anything difficult, you break it down by evolution and just keep pushing forward. I eventually completed my associate degree and was ultimately admitted to Yale and Columbia. For me, Yale was the clear choice between the two because of the academic and professional opportunities, the small class sizes, which have their pros and cons, and the generous financial aid package. As my life’s chapter in the Navy was ending, I was simultaneously excited and nervous. I’d spent my adult life in military service, and it was a bit unnerving to realize that part of my identity was nearing its end. On the other hand, I was looking forward to progressing my career into its next stage and experiencing life as a college student. 

Academically, I didn’t find Yale to be much different than I expected. Sure, the readings were longer and denser than I’d previously experienced, the math was a bit tougher and more abstract, but the professors were engaging and full of wisdom. It wasn’t long until I got into the swing of things. Outside of the classroom, life didn’t quite feel like I thought it would. For financial reasons, my wife accepted a position in Germany and being geographically separated was tough. As such, I rented an apartment across from campus and was doing my best to adjust to being alone for the first time in a very long time. In the military, we’re always together in some form or another. Whether that’s on deployment where we’re often in closer proximity than we’d prefer or back in garrison having beers after work, you’re rarely ever alone. Being a 28 year old, married but geographically separated, student-veteran living off campus in a town you don’t know without many friends is a challenge that takes some adjustment. Instead of retreating, I leaned in and got to know my classmates, as well as my fellow Eli Whitney students. I eventually found my footing and developed a diverse network that only a place like Yale can provide. I also got involved with student organizations and consistently worked to get out of my comfort zone. A great cigar bar with the best scotch collection in Connecticut also helped. 

In future articles, I’m going to share more academic insights, as well lessons learned from my transition, but for now I want to hammer a point home: lean in. You’re going to have moments of insecurity. You’re going to have moments where you feel like you don’t belong. You’re going to have that conversation in your head asking yourself what you’ve done. The good news is that you’ve already dealt with these. I guarantee you asked yourself in basic training if you’d made a mistake. You’ve experienced being the new guy or girl after a PCS. It is all a similar process that requires you to take things one day at a time, one evolution at time, and to get outside your comfort zone. While I loved my experience in the U.S. Navy, and that will always be a part of me, I’m proud to be a Yale Bulldog now.

Published by Kurt Nowak

NSI - Yale Associate

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