Three students reflect on their military service and life now at Yale
As he was nearing the end of his service as a U.S. Army Ranger and thinking about college, Andrew Nguyen ’22 couldn’t imagine he’d ever be admitted to Yale.
Now in his first semester on campus as a student in the university’s Eli Whitney Students Program (EWSP), Nguyen says he feels “daily gratitude” for the opportunity to be here, and he’s also helping other former service members to aim for the colleges of their dreams.
Nguyen is among 10 student veterans and one active Marine enrolled in Yale’s EWSP for nontraditional students. All but one of them received support during their college application process from Service to School (S2S), a nonprofit organization that helps prepare transitioning military veterans to gain admission to the best colleges or graduate schools possible. One of the three co-founders of S2S is Khalil Tawil LAW ’17, a former U.S. Army infantry officer.
Three years ago, Yale became an inaugural partner in S2S’ Vetlink program, which helps veterans and transitioning service members with their college search. To assist the partner schools in their recruitment efforts, Vetlink also helps to identify potential applicants.
“When S2S decided to launch the Vetlink program, we were eager to be a partner because it is the only nonprofit organization run by veterans with the goal of guiding veterans through the college admissions process,” says Patricia Wei, director of admissions for the EWSP and director of veterans outreach. “S2S’ Vetlink program is a wonderful way for veterans to get information about highly selective colleges and to get advice from peers — people who, like them, served in the military and were admitted to top-tier colleges such as Yale, Amherst, and University of Chicago.”
Yale is committed to recruiting qualified military veterans, as the campus gains much by their presence here, adds Wei.
“Most of this year’s high school seniors were born in 2001 and have no memory of 9/11. To have older students who have served and been deployed to Afghanistan and elsewhere adds a different dimension to the dialog in the classroom and in the dining halls. Student veterans have life and professional experiences that our traditional undergraduates simply don’t have.”
As the university was preparing for its Veterans Day celebration, YaleNews chatted with Nguyen and two of his new friends in the EWSP: Navy veteran Hillary Browning ’20 (who will give remarks at the Nov. 12 Veterans Day ceremony) and Allegra Pankratz ’22, an active duty Marine who is in the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program. The three spoke about their military service, how they found their way to Yale through S2S, and why they want to support other former and current enlisted men and women to pursue their own educational aspirations.
Andrew Nguyen: From special operations to a ‘surreal’ college acceptance
A native of Rochester, New York, Nguyen knew in high school that he wanted to join the military, but put it off until he had two college experiences under his belt. He spent one year at Saint Bonaventure University and the next at Saint John Fisher College before he enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, the nation’s most elite light infantry fighting force. The highly trained Rangers undertake missions that range from special operations raids to airfield seizures to special reconnaissance.
Nguyen said his desire to serve was fueled by his own patriotism and that of his parents.
“Both of my parents are immigrants who came from Vietnam as teenagers in the mid-1970s,” says Nguyen. “My parents love America and the opportunities it gave them and the values it stood for. I felt serving was something I had to do. I didn’t want to just do something conventional: I chose the Army Rangers because I wanted to tough it out with the toughest.”
After undergoing intense training and completing his Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, Nguyen was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment. He spent four years stationed at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, and later was deployed, first to South Korea and later to Afghanistan twice.
“I think I can speak for all Rangers in saying that with the amount of training we go through, when it’s time to do our job we are ready and we are excited to do our part,” says Nguyen, who was a gun team leader. “Never once did I regret the decision I made, the people I met, and the experience I had as a Ranger.”
In 2017, as his time in the military was coming to end, Nguyen began thinking about returning to school, which, he says, was always a goal.
“While I was overseas, I just typed in something like ‘veterans to school’ and the first thing that popped up was [the website for] S2S,” says Nguyen. “I got in contact with a friend at Harvard, who also recommended it. One great thing about it is that it’s free!”
Nguyen was paired with Christine Schwartz, then director of S2S undergraduate operations who now serves as the chief operating officer of S2S.
“She was amazing, assisting me out throughout the application process and linking me up with students who could help me with the interview process and read over my essays,” recalls Nguyen. “She was also an incredible resource for linking me with schools that would be a good fit. I submitted my Vetlink addendum [a separate application piece where veterans or enlisted service people can showcase their military training and experience] and then she spoke to me about schools that would fit with my background and educational experience.”
While at first he thought that Yale was beyond his reach, Nguyen was encouraged by Schwartz and others to apply. In the summer of 2018, he took part in the Warrior-Scholar Project, a program co-founded by three Yale alumni that helps military veterans transition “from the battlefield to the classroom.”
“The Warrior-Scholar Project was a transformative experience for me,” says Nguyen. “It’s an educational boot camp that I think every veteran should do. The connections you make in the program, and the ability to be on a college campus — along with the interaction with renowned professors — is valuable for any veteran looking to go to school.”
Learning he was accepted into Yale’s EWSP was “a surreal experience” for him, Nguyen says. “I was speechless,” he recalls. “It was big moment.”
As a first-year student, the 23-year-old Nguyen is still adjusting to life on campus. He’s hoping to major in neuroscience, and plans eventually to attend medical school with the goal of working with veterans who suffer from PTSD and other mental health disorders that stem from service or combat. He is playing intramural football, just began volunteering at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and is a member of the Yale branch of Camp Kesem, a national organization that sponsors one-week of free camp for children whose parents have been affected by cancer. In addition, he is a volunteer for Alzheimer’s Buddies and a member of the Vietnamese Students Association.
Nguyen says that he is grateful to be experiencing college life as a more mature student.
“The biggest thing the military provided me with was direction,” he says. “It allowed me to find who I am and what I wanted to do. Coming back to school was easier because I’m a little bit older and my focus is more narrow. My military experience and perspective helps to push me through the difficult times.”
As an undergraduate ambassador for S2S and a regional ambassador for the New York City area, the Army veteran is helping two current service members who hope to go to college.
“I take a lot of pride in being an ambassador for S2S,” he says. “Being able to work with other veterans who need someone that they can talk to as they go through the process — someone who has already gotten into college — can be very motivating for a prospective applicant. Seeing them take the initiative to get into the school of their dreams — that’s pretty huge!”
Hillary Browning: ‘Gilmore Girls’ helps lead Navy journalist to Yale
One reason that Hillary Browning offers for joining the Navy is that she wanted to prove her father wrong.
During her senior year in high school in New Braunfels, Texas, all of the seniors were given the ASVAB military entrance test. While she wanted to attend college, she felt she couldn’t afford it without getting into massive debt, so she began working in a restaurant after graduation. A Marine recruiter who had gotten her ASVAB test scores kept calling her. She dodged him for a time, then finally pleaded with him: If she went in for a quick chat, would he stop calling her?
The recruiter agreed. But when Browning got there, the recruiter wasn’t in his office. Instead, she went into a door for the Navy, and soon enough that recruiter began telling her about some naval jobs for which she might qualify. She wasn’t interested until he mentioned the job of journalist, telling her that it is a pretty competitive position to land.
Browning went home to tell her parents about the conversation, expecting them to be thrilled by her interest in joining the military. Instead, they barely looked up from what they were doing. Eventually, her father said, “You’re not going to do it, so why get excited?”
Browning acknowledges that she never thought of herself as the “military type,” especially because she was pretty thin-skinned. But hearing her dad tell her she wouldn’t join made her march back to the Navy office and sign up. By the time she left for boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, her parents were “very proud,” she says.
Browning served as a Navy journalist for six years, spending that time in Japan and Afghanistan before being stationed for one year on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, where she served as editor-in-chief of the ship’s daily newspaper. Her honors in the Navy include winning Best Feature of the Year for an article on her captain and a Commendation Medal from the U.S. Army for her journalistic contributions in Afghanistan. In October, she was selected as one of two winners of a 2018 NBC Universal-Student Veterans of America Scholarship, a $12,000 award for high-achieving student veterans pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree.
While on the aircraft carrier and thinking about life beyond the military, Browning learned about S2S by doing a Google search for “veteran college help.” She credits her S2S ambassador, former Army Green Beret Dylan McCracken, with giving her the confidence to apply to Ivy League schools.
“It’s easy for enlisted people to sometimes feel dispensable, and sometimes you are even told that you are dispensable,” says Browning. “It is hard to feel special when you know that you are rotating out every few years and there’s always someone to take your place. That’s sort of what I was suffering from, but Dylan helped to give me the confidence that I could apply to and study at a place like Yale.”
One of the reasons that she was enamored with Yale, Browning says, is because she was a fan of the television show “Gilmore Girls,” on which there is a character who attends Yale. “It was my dream school because of that, and I chose it sight unseen,” the Navy veteran admits.
Browning is majoring in political science and eventually hopes to attend law school. She has been a member of the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, which she said she appreciates because it fosters political debate between those with competing views, and she is working as a student representative in the EWSP admissions office. As a S2S ambassador, she is currently supporting one military veteran in his college application process. Meanwhile, she is encouraging her husband, a U.S. Navy explosive ordinance disposal technician, as he prepares for his own transition from the military to college.
“I think the Eli Whitney Student Program is special because you can go part time, and for people who have children that’s a big deal,” says Browning. She also appreciates the community she has become a part of at Yale.
“The veterans here are really close,” Browning says. “We are all Eli Whitney students and have our military experience in common. But since the veteran community here is relatively small, we also have to branch out to meet other students, and I think that’s a really good thing.”
For veterans or service members who may feel intimidated by the college process, especially about applying to top-tier schools, Browning offers this advice: “Don’t take yourself out of the running by not applying. Don’t tell yourself you’re not good enough for a particular school. Like me, you might be very surprised!”
Allegra Pankratz: A Marine making the most of her time on campus
As she was thinking about colleges, Allegra Pankrantz read a New York Times article discussing the relatively low number of veterans in higher-level education. S2S was mentioned in the article, and Pankratz thought it might be a helpful resource. One of her bosses in the Marines had suggested she apply to Yale and other Ivy League colleges, which she hadn’t considered before.
Her S2S ambassador, Navy veteran and Yale alumnus Ryan Pearson ’17, gave her greater confidence as she journeyed through the application process and helped her to see how her military experience could be “pertinent to the classroom and to the campus,” Pankratz says.
Pankratz ultimately wrote her Yale application essay about how her overseas experiences in the Marines changed her worldview and how she hoped to further expand that view in college. She was especially drawn to Yale because of its Eli Whitney Student Program, she says.
“Students in the Eli Whitney Program are not in a separate degree program but rather are part of Yale College,” Pankratz explains. “We’re offered all of the same classes, programs, and opportunities that traditional undergraduates are.”
Pankratz grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and had planned to go to the University of Texas-Austin. When she went to visit the school and tallied up its cost, however, she realized she couldn’t afford to attend, she says. There happened to be a Marines recruiting station across the street, and so she ventured over.
“The recruiter sold me,” recalls Pankratz. “He did a good job of making it sound like it’s going to be challenging and that I would play an important role. I was intrigued by it.”
She began her military career in Cherry Point, North Carolina, as an unmanned aerial vehicle technician, and then spent the next three years as a Marine security guard and detachment commander at American embassies and consulates in Morocco, China, Brazil, Venezuela, and Paraguay.
“While overseas, I got to work with other Americans but also with local nationals, which made it very interesting work,” Pankratz says. She also appreciated the opportunities she had to travel and to engage with staff from the U.S. Department of State and from other branches of the military as part of her work.
Pankratz also took classes online while overseas, and she more recently graduated from Officer Candidate School. She is the first-ever Yale student participating in the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, which provides enlisted Marines the opportunity to attend school full time while on active duty. When she graduates from Yale, she will commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
At Yale, the 25-year-old Pankratz is in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and so takes part in classes and drills with her fellow NROTC midshipmen. The first-year student is considering a major in global affairs, and is interested in applying to the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy. She enjoys attending the many talks and lectures on global affairs that are hosted by the MacMillan Center and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is also a member of the Eli Whitney Students Society, which hosts social events and meetings for those in the EWSP. Last summer, she conducted research in the Political Violence Field Lab at the MacMillan Center, which integrates research by faculty and students on the question of political violence and its effects. The lab is directed by Jason Lyall, whose “Introduction to International Relations” has been one of Pankratz’s favorite courses thus far, she says.
“There were a lot of ‘light bulb’ moments for me in that class,” says Pankratz, who is now studying Arabic. She says she’d like to spend next summer in an immersive language program in Morocco, a favorite country.
“Honestly, if there’s one place to visit, that’s the country,” she says. “You can be on a beach, then drive for four hours and be in the mountains, then drive another two hours and be in sand dunes.”
Like Browning, Pankratz serves as a student representative in the EWSP admissions office. Being at Yale, she says, helps to bridge the “civilian/military divide,” and allows her to point out the many opportunities in the military of which many of her civilian peers are unaware.
“A lot of people are shocked when I tell them about my experience serving overseas,” she says. “They didn’t know that the military did those tasks or jobs, or that young people can be part of them.”
While she is not a S2S ambassador this semester, Pankratz looks forward to having that role in the future. In the longer term, she aspires to go to graduate school or law school. In the meantime, she says, “I want to take advantage of all the opportunities Yale has. There’s more than I’ve even considered!”