Our Veterans – A Princeton Perspective

Princeton advertises its efforts for diversity of all types among its undergraduates, stating that it “aspires to be a truly diverse community in which individuals of every gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status can flourish.” Yet one particular group that possesses an extremely diverse set of experiences and skills is massively underrepresented— indeed, almost completely unrepresented: veterans of the U.S. military.   

As far as he knows, Michael Liao ‘17 is the only undergraduate veteran on campus. (The Admission Office, when contacted for this information, says it does “not track” these statistics.) An Electrical Engineering major, Liao served in the Marine Corps for four years immediately after high school, stationed in Okinawa and Camp Pendleton. Like many of those who leave the military after their initial four-year commitment ends, he was considering various colleges.

“Right before you get out,” Liao said, “there’s these transitional seminars to educate Marines as to their real-world options.” As part of these programs, representatives from various colleges go to bases to speak. “Columbia’s the only [Ivy-League] school that sent someone to where I was stationed.”

While certainly not alone among its peers in its lack of interest in attracting veterans, “Princeton’s been in the limelight lagging behind in terms of undergrad vets,” Liao reported. When asked why he applied to Princeton, considering the seemingly unwelcome environment, he replied that his mentality was, “Screw it, might as well take a shot.”

Those who have served in the military carry a wealth of life experiences that other students on campus won’t have. They bring a perspective radically different from the vast majority of their fellow students, who just graduated high school, much more so than a mere difference of economic or ethnic background. Instead of having spent their entire life in school, veterans have encountered real-world problems and hardships. Often coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, many enlist after high school and are immediately faced with challenges and experiences often completely foreign for those not in the military. From simply experiencing basic training to deploying to war zones, veterans have learned many valuable lessons that transfer to other walks of life, including college.

While other differences can certainly be valuable and fulfill the University’s stated purpose of diversity—namely, to create an environment that is “more intellectually and socially stimulating”they can in no way compare to the added perspectives that a former member of the military brings.

The nature of veterans’ service enables them to form exceptionally close bonds with those they work with, forging ideals of sacrifice and loyalty that are unique. As Princeton Professor Uwe Reinhardt wrote in 2013, these are characteristics and perspectives less commonly found outside the military,” but that clearly provide value in all settings, including an academic one.

Moreover, the “real-world” exposure that veterans have had, from boot camp to job training to performance in their specialty to deployments, teaches valuable lessons that can add greatly to the discourse in and out of the classroom. The well-known class, “Western Way of War,” which Liao took, is meant to provide students with an “overview of war focusing on the origins and consequences of organized violence, the experience of battle, [and] the creation and behavior of warriors.”

Besides such an obvious example of the value of the perspective of a veteran, who has experienced at least two of these things first hand, that perspective would be equally valuable in countless other classes and debates. As compared to a eighteen-year-old freshman, who has, at least generally, never had to make a truly important decision with broad-ranging moral implications, a veteran will likely have had to make several difficult choices, with the life and safety of his comrades at stake. As Reinhardt asked, “Who would know better how tough moral choices are actually made” than veterans?

Veterans add a valuable viewpoint that would contribute to any college, even setting buzzwords such as diversity aside. But at Princeton, which fancies itself to be “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity,” actively reaching out to veterans who have served the nation would be especially fitting.

There are undeniable challenges that come with admitting, and reaching out to, veterans. First, by the time they have completed their four years, most will be at least 22, four years older than the average freshman. One might guess that this would lead to social strains, or stratification by age, as veterans struggle to relate to the concerns and life of a typical self-centered freshman. But Liao dismisses these concerns. “As far as the social aspect, I haven’t let age get in the way,” he said. While he acknowledged that some people might have issues, he argued, “That’s not a good blanket reason in general. You have to handle that on a person-to-person basis.”

Liao, does live off-campus now, as a senior. Yet he stays involved with other undergraduates through his classes and his Crossfit and weightlifting groups. “It’s not a problem if you work at it,” he said.

Another possible obstacle that Liao mentioned is loss of familiarity with high-school knowledge, such as calculus. He described having to work harder than most of his classmates to get through the engineering prerequisites, because he had forgotten much of the specific information he had learned in high school. But veterans have dealt with much harder things; this possible difficulty is not a reason to be concerned about admitting them, Liao said.  

Despite the paltry number of U.S. military veterans actually on campus, the Admission Office claims, “This population is one we recruit for each year.” Seeming to recognize the value of having veterans as undergraduates, it should either actually begin recruiting, or make its recruitment process (which Liao said he had never heard of) effective. (The recruitment program for the football team—or even the squash team—would surely be revamped if it managed one football player every four years).

To the University’s credit, its Strategic Framework published last year mentions a specific focus on reaching out to veterans as part of the transfer program. One of the benefits of allowing transfer students, it states, is to “provide a vehicle to attract students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, such as qualified military veterans.”

When reached for comment, the Admission Office also referred to a new effort at “formal and informal partnerships with non-profit organizations that assist military veterans with transitioning or returning to higher education.”

“Further,” it said, “we have created new online and printed recruiting publications that will soon include components specifically addressed to veteran students in addition to new features for transfer and non-traditional students.”

While Princeton should be commended for taking these steps, which allow the many veterans who do have some college credit to apply, it should undertake an active outreach that encourages veterans to matriculate as freshmen, perhaps modelled off of Columbia’s. If the vast majority of veterans who attend Princeton transfer in at some later point, they will contribute less to the University community as a whole. Instead of living with other students in residential colleges, and contributing their wildly different experiences and values from the start, transferring in would reduce normal, day-to-day, interaction with their fellow students. This could even exacerbate the concern expressed above of social separation based on age: if nearly all veterans enter as non-freshmen, this social separation could be a natural reaction.

Allowing and encouraging veterans to transfer in is also an important part of the effort to expand veteran enrollment more broadly. But focusing on four-year enrollment has special value. Princeton should commit to having representatives to the transitional briefs Liao described above, upon which veterans rely in large part to make their decision. The costs of sending representatives to bases for these programs would admittedly not be trivial, but the advantages gained by helping veterans, which in turn would greatly advantage the University community as a whole, would make it more than worth it.

Recognizing the true diversity and value that veterans would bring to the undergraduate community, Princeton should be eager to greatly expand its outreach to veteran communities. This is not to say that standards should be lowered to admit veterans who would not otherwise be qualified. But nearly all veterans simply never consider Princeton, though some are extremely well qualified. Princeton, especially considering its mission and ideals, has a chance to stop wasting their valuable opportunity to reach out to those who have served in the military.

“Look, if the University’s motto is about ‘the Nation’s Service,’” Liao said, “there’s always more they can do to attract veterans.”

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