The once-‘impossible’ becomes cause for celebration for student war veteran

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Adrian Hale in front of the war memorial on Beinecke Plaza on Veterans Day 2016. (Photo by Risa Sodi)

When he graduated high school in Rochester, New York more than a decade ago, Adrian Hale watched the class valedictorian give a speech and thought, “That could be me.”

At the time, Hale wasn’t headed for college, but he decided there and then that if he ever did go, he was “going to do it right.”

On May 22 — with two tours to Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine behind him — the 28-year-old Hale will hear his own name called as a Yale College graduate. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college (and was also the first to graduate from high school).

Hale actually finished his degree in December 2016, and just a month earlier, gave a Veterans Day ceremony speech to an attentive audience on Beinecke Plaza. During his speech, he remarked that being at Yale at age 18 “would have been impossible.” His admission through Yale’s  Eli Whitney Program, he says, was only possible because of one of many “interventions” in his life — serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. The Eli Whitney Program allows individuals with high academic potential whose educations were interrupted for five or more years to earn an undergraduate degree from Yale College.

“I grew up in inner-city Rochester,” he says. “My mom and my dad never finished high school. Most of my life my family was predominantly a single-parent household headed by my mother. We were really poor.”

Hale says his mother’s strength and resilience inspires him to this day. She worked multiple jobs, but was always there for him when he needed her most. And, despite their circumstances, there was a lot of joy in their home.

He acknowledges that he “was not the best student” in high school, but said that he did excel in sports, which kept him focused because he couldn’t compete if he wasn’t in school. His introduction to athletics came when he was 12 and played football for a local Pop Warner team called the Baden Street Bulldogs. In high school he ran cross-country and track. He also had the opportunity to short track speed skate, and even advanced to training at the Pettit National Ice Center, the official Olympic training center, where he skated on a national development team.

During high school, Hale worked as a cashier at a local grocery store, where he happened to meet up with a military recruiter from his school.

“We were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after having a conversation with him, I felt that if I didn’t do my part I might forever regret it,” says Hale. “And I always loved my country.”

He joined the Marine Corps in the summer of 2007 despite the fierce opposition of his family members and many friends.

“It was the first decision I made on my own,” Hale says. “I felt like the idea of fighting the War on Terror — being a part of this great fight for freedom, democracy, diversity, and our way of life — gave me a purpose that was bigger than myself.”

In the Marines, Hale became an avionics technician and was quickly meritoriously promoted to the rank of corporal. He served at times as his section’s desk sergeant, with responsibility for making sure that aircraft are safe for flight, that encryption technology used for communications and navigation systems are working properly, and that countermeasure systems — which warn aircraft pilots of any threats — are also operating as they should. His first tour of Afghanistan was from August 2009 to March 2010, his second from February to May 2011.

“Our base was a target of suicide bombings on my first deployment,” recalls Hale. “I was 18 years old. I can still remember flying into Afghanistan on a C-17 [a military transport aircraft], and the tail opening up. There is more fear than you can put into words: There is the infamous desert. You are constantly hearing artillery going over your head. You get desensitized after a while, but sometimes there are these really bad explosions that shake you to your bone marrow. I can feel the emotion coming back just talking about it.”

By his second deployment, Hale was well regarded for his skill in avionics, and had assumed some leadership roles in his unit. Being in Afghanistan for a second time, however, was even tougher emotionally for the young Marine.

“My second time in the desert, I came face-to-face with myself,” explains Hale. “One aspect of that was starting to acknowledge my own sexuality as a gay man.”

When he finally came back, he brought the fear and uncertainty of the battlefield, along with an unfinished sense of self, home with him. And, what he found when he returned to his old neighborhood added to his struggle.

“After feeling a part of a greater, larger purpose, I came home and saw that not a lot had changed,” he said. “I saw friends from high school who had begun to perpetuate the conditions many people in my community  — especially the black community — were born into: dead-end jobs, becoming a young parent, being impoverished. I went through a really dark depression for a very difficult five-to-six month period.”

Like so many other soldiers, Hale was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and began treatment. Hale credits members of his family with rallying behind him and helping him get back on his feet.

“There was a sort of paradigm shift in my family,” he says. “My dad was now being a father 110% and was an amazing support system for me. I was blessed.”

While in Afghanistan, Hale had started to read books of literature and political philosophy, including those by authors Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, and Frederick Douglass. Once home, he realized that he wanted to go to college to study sociology, politics, philosophy, and government. He enrolled in Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester in the summer of 2012 and in the spring of that same year he re-enlisted in the Air Force Reserve.

“I wanted the stability, accountability, and structure of the military,” he says. “The Marine Corps had given me a set of experiences that revealed to me who I truly was and what I was capable of.”

At MCC, Hale earned a 4.0, was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, and became involved in student government. He also became a speaker in the school’s student senate. He was awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award, which is given to select New York students in recognition of their academic excellence, leadership, community service, and other contributions. During his time at the community college, Hale also worked for a mayoral campaign in Rochester and became involved in the city’s politics in other ways as well.

“I fell in love with college,” says Hale. “Through my courses and class discussions, I began to see that the fight mindset I had cultivated against terrorism could now be channeled into other causes; it could become for me a war for justice, a war for a more equitable world, a war against poverty and against all of the impediments I was raised with and grew up experiencing. My service to my country, in many ways, was just beginning!”

To continue his education, Hale applied to a number of top universities, but said that Yale was his top choice after his very first admissions interview.

“Yale embraced me like family,” he says. “The people in admissions cared about my story in a way that felt authentic and genuine, more so than some of the other schools that accepted me.”

As an Eli Whitney Scholar, Hale majored in political science, but he also filled his schedule with courses in sociology, law, philosophy, and more. Among the professors who most inspired him, he says, are law professor Akhil Amar, for the sheer depth of his knowledge about constitutional law and for his “pursuit of knowledge for creating progress and having an impact”; political scientist Jacob Hacker, for his “commitment to social change and equality”; and comparative literature professor Moira Fradinger for “introducing me to a voice within myself that I didn’t know I had” as he explored Latin American philosophical thought.

At Yale, Hale also held a yearlong post as an undergraduate director fellow of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

“Not only did I get an amazing education and build all this acumen in politics and government and thought, but I’ve also had a recalibration of values and principles” at Yale, says Hale. “I became more committed to the people who need the most and are often given the least.” For his senior thesis, he wrote about education reform in Rochester, with political science professor Douglas Rae (another inspiration for Hale) as his adviser.

Last January, Hale began working at the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, where he is manager of strategic initiatives. In that post, he focuses on initiatives that are designed to improve students’ educational outcomes; workforce development efforts that upskill and reskill laborers, allowing them to secure better employment opportunities; reducing and removing barriers to employment; and boosting career and college readiness in youth, among other duties.

“Sometime in the next decade I hope to get involved in work that focuses on institutional and systemic change, reforming them in a way where they produce better results for those who have been dis-serviced and underserved regardless of identity, and, hopefully, improving the quality of life, situations, and conditions for everyone.”

The Yale graduate says he wouldn’t have missed marching in the Yale Commencement procession on May 22 for anything. His guests will include his parents, his partner, and some aunts and uncles.

“I’m an example of the truth that you can always overcome obstacles,” says Hale. “Anything I’ve been able to accomplish is important only as it allows me to accomplish what I see as my purpose: to be the kind of leader who really does what needs to be done on behalf of people who need it the most to make life better — allowing and empowering them in a way so that they can discover their own purposes and reach their maximum potential as people. I think that’s the essence of my own story.”

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