Yale People

Senior arrived as Air Force vet and graduates a Gates-Cambridge Scholar

Rob Henderson ’18 reflects on a lifetime of obstacles and opportunities that have led him from a foster home in California to Europe, Yale, and beyond.
Yale student Rob Henderson

Rob Henderson ’18

As he sets his sights on graduation and his future, Yale senior Rob Henderson can’t help but to reflect on how the kindnesses of others — many of them strangers — helped lead him to this point.

In fact, says Henderson, it’s hard for him to imagine he’d ever have come to Yale at all without such kindnesses.

First, there are the half-dozen families who fostered him after he was removed from the care of his drug-addicted biological mother; followed by his adoptive mother, who raised and cared for him from the age of 7. Later, there was the father of a high school friend who took him in during his senior year of high school in northern California after Henderson’s own family lost its house in foreclosure during the 2007 housing market crash.

After high school, there were his superiors in the Air Force who entrusted the new 18-year-old electronic warfare technician with the task of maintaining the systems on military aircraft that protect them from radar detection (hence from being blown up by enemy fire). During his time in the military, an email he sent to the Yale Veterans Association was answered by Kyle Hathaway SOM ’14, who gladly offered to chat about college life over Skype and told him about the Warrior-Scholar Project on Yale’s campus. While Henderson participated in that two-week college-preparation “boot camp” for veterans, another Yale stranger, Professor Paul Bloom, accepted Henderson’s invitation to talk about what it’s like to study psychology at the university, as well as about his own research.

I came away from that meeting thinking I could see myself doing this,” recalls Henderson, who applied to Yale through the university’s Eli Whitney Students Program for nontraditional students, matriculating in 2015. His college essay — which described, in part, some of the trials of his upbringing and the sense of purpose and direction he achieved during his eight years in the Air Force — was published in The New York Times.

Finding a home

Henderson was born in Los Angeles and grew up in foster care there until his adoption, when he moved in with his family to the rural, northern California town of Red Bluff, where there were few Asian students. Although he began elementary school there somewhat disinterested due to the chaotic nature of his early life, he eventually became an engaged and successful student. When he was 14, however, the then-partner of his adoptive mother was badly injured in a shooting. The resulting chaos in the home from the tragedy caused Henderson once again to lose academic focus.

It was a rough time for me,” Henderson recalls. “It happened in the summer right before my freshman year. Afterwards, my grades plummeted. I stopped caring about school. However, I had always read a lot, and continued to read, and I was always curious. But in high school, with my C-average GPA and lack of interest, it was clear that I was not going to college.”

Henderson instead decided to join the military, which appealed to him because it would give him the opportunity to travel. He was also drawn by his sense of adventure and patriotism.

In 2007, we were still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “I wanted to do something great, and wanted to make people proud. Long-term, I also thought that the military would give me some stability in my life, and I would be able (with GI Bill benefits) to pay for college later.”

Humbling and confidence-building

His experience in the Air Force was “very positive,” says Henderson, who spent most of his enlistment in Europe but was also deployed to Qatar and Kyrgyzstan. He enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and from diverse backgrounds, and says he was amazed at the trust that was placed in him.

Shortly after completing my training at age 18, I was tasked with responsibility for multimillion dollar equipment,” Henderson says of his job as an electronic warfare technician. “That they put this tremendous responsibility in the hands of someone not too far out of high school was humbling.”

Henderson received numerous awards and honors for his service over the years, but knew that he did not want to make the military a long-term career. He began taking college-level courses on base and researching his options. He came across the Yale Veterans Association website one night while doing an internet search of resources for veterans in college. His interest in psychology — spurred in part by reading Bloom’s books on moral development — had also led him to the Yale professor’s Open Yale course “Introduction to Psychology.”

I remember thinking that maybe I could go to Yale — probably not, but maybe,” Henderson says. “The amazing thing is that while I wrote to the Yale Veterans Association not really expecting a response, Kyle Hathaway responded a few days later, and we kept in touch over Skype.”

From warrior to scholar

In the Warrior Scholar Program Henderson had the opportunity to meet the Yale alumni who started and led the program as well as with other veterans who hoped to attend college. In addition to teaching reading and study techniques, the leaders of the program also impressed upon Henderson and other veterans the importance of having an an open mind in college, particularly about how their military experience might be viewed by non-veteran college peers.

Sometimes veterans can have a chip on their shoulder, thinking ‘I was the in the military and no one [outside of the military] can understand me.’ But if we are willing to talk, a lot of students are interested in hearing our stories,” Henderson explains. “It’s been heartwarming for me to interact with so many Yale students who say ‘Wow, you were in the military. What was that like?”

Having received some college credit for courses he took during his military service, Henderson began at Yale in his sophomore year, when he was about six years older than the traditional undergraduate. He began working in Bloom’s Mind and Development Lab in his junior year, and Bloom is the adviser for Henderson’s senior thesis, which explores young children’s moral sense of punishment.

Adults think that punishment should be commensurate with the severity of the moral transgression,” says Henderson. “My thesis explores when this sense of punishment emerges in children. The short version of my results is that 5-year-olds believe that ‘the time should match the crime.’ Working on this study and finding an ‘academic home’ in the lab have been highlights of my time here.”

In February, Henderson learned that he is one of 35 U.S. citizens (out of some 800 Americans who apply) named Gates Cambridge Scholars. The scholarship will pay for three years of doctoral study at Cambridge University, where he will explore peoples’ perceptions of themselves in terms of their moral, economic, and social value.

The Yale senior says that he “pleasantly startled” to receive such a prestigious honor, noting that he was encouraged to apply for the scholarship by psychologist Simone Schnall at Cambridge University, whom Henderson had contacted to inquire whether there were any research openings in the Body, Mind, and Behaviour Laboratory she directs there. She also offered him a position in her lab.

I thought only geniuses get that award,” says Henderson. “I feel extremely lucky, extremely blessed. I’m not even a religious person but that feels like the right word to use.”

Fulfillment through service

Henderson says that two of his most meaningful experiences as an undergraduate involve service: being a volunteer tutor of youngsters at the literacy program New Haven Reads and an undergraduate mentor for Service to School, a national non-profit that provides free college application counseling and mentorship support to military veterans transitioning into college. Henderson was mentored himself through the program by a student at Stanford University, and he, in turn, mentored a former Marine who now attends Brown University.

I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to apply to Yale without the Warrior Scholar Project and Service to School,” says Henderson. “I believe in ‘paying it forward.’ I’m hoping that it will cause a cascade of people helping others.”

The 28-year-old Yale student says that he will be “elated” to receive his undergraduate degree next week.

I certainly would not have believed it if someone told me five years ago that I would be graduating from Yale,” he says. “It would not have been in the universe of possibilities for me. Going back even further, to high school, it would not even have been on my radar at all!”


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Part of the In Focus Collection: Meet some of Yale’s outstanding graduates of 2018

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