Naval veteran plunged into a new world as a Yale undergraduate

RJ Hakes
RJ Hakes

Before coming to Yale in 2020, RJ Hakes ’22 spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy. During much of that time, he disarmed explosive devices and conducted classified national security missions as part of a Special Operations Forces (SOF) Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) platoon.

Yet he claims one of his most stressful experiences ever took place during a Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company production of “Sleeping Beauty.”

At the time, a peer in the Eli Whitney Students Program had asked Hakes if he would help out with the lighting for the show. Hakes said yes, imagining that he would be asked to sit up in the rafters with a powerful light, directing it where needed.

In fact, I had to learn the engineering of this entire technological suite,” said Hakes. “I was sitting on this platform in front of multiple computer screens, constantly monitoring and pushing various buttons for the lighting changes and orchestrating the music. I was stressed out the whole time.”

Hakes had confronted life-or-death situations as a senior enlisted leader of SOF missions, but his training equipped him to perform whatever immediate tasks were at hand without thinking about what could go wrong in the moment. That wasn’t the case here. During the ballet production, he was constantly aware of the potential for utter embarrassment if he failed.

Still, like in his naval career, it was his courageous mindset that allowed Hakes to take on the ballet assignment in the first place. It’s a mindset that has defined his two years at Yale in the Eli Whitney Student Program, which allows nontraditional students to earn an undergraduate degree by taking courses full- or part-time.

My attitude has been that there are no barriers to my ability to fit in here or to make the best of it,” said Hakes, a full-time student who at 42 is more than twice the age of many of his classmates.

RJ Hakes with a curling broom

For his naval career, Hakes was trained to perform 300-foot-deep dives into the sea and skydive from heights of 30,000 feet. At Yale, in addition to being a dedicated student with near-perfect grades, he dove into extracurricular life as well: he has been a member of the Yale Curling team and the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, and served as co-president of the Yale Undergraduate Student Veterans Society. He also made time to support other veterans in the college admissions process as an ambassador for Service to School (S2S). He recently began serving as a humanities teaching fellow for the Warrior Scholar Project, a program founded by Yale alumni that helps enlisted service members transition to and succeed in college.

Twenty-one years after taking his first college course while still in the Navy, Hakes will graduate this month with a B.A. degree in two majors: archaeological studies and classical civilizations.

A pull to explore the world

Hakes joined the Navy in 1998 at the age of 19, inspired, in part, by two of his literary heroes: the famed Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway. Kerouac had a short stint in the merchant marines during World War II, and Hemingway drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I. Both men are known for their adventurousness, which, Hakes said, made them feel like “kindred spirits.”

RJ Hakes in combat gear

I had this interest in seeing the world,” said Hakes, who over the course of his naval career traveled to some 80 countries, had more than 10 deployments (including to Iraq and Afghanistan, and throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa). He even spent a month at the White House during the Obama administration as a team leader for the Secret Services’ bomb squad. By his estimates, during those two decades of service he typically spent fewer than 20 days at home each year.

Hakes’ first naval job involved working on airplanes, which brought world travel and time on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. His next assignment was in Sicily, where he set up a shop for a unit working on airplane parts. It was there that Hakes, who’d first become interested in ancient civilizations visiting the pre-Columbian cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado as a child, found his passion for archaeology was “cemented.”

Right outside the base in Sicily was a Norman castle, and nearby were the most intact Greek ruins in the world,” he said. “I saw Latin and Greek inscriptions on the wall of the ancient theater Taormina on the Mediterranean. It was a magical place to be, and all that stuff really brought history to life and made me want to explore other ancient places.”

While in Sicily, Hakes observed a Navy EOD team performing special operations training, and decided he wanted to be engaged in similar work. After being accepted in the EOD program, he began his specialized training with 38 other candidates. He spent several years undergoing rigorous training on land, sea, and in the air; only eight of his fellow trainees finished the training with him.

During his years on the Special Operations EOD team, where he could be called upon “to detonate anything from a pipe bomb to a nuclear weapon,” Hakes said what he most enjoyed was the sense of calm and steadiness that came with living life entirely in the present.

I don’t think you make it through a program where most people quit without being able to endure and think about what’s immediately important,” he said. “And I do think I have a really important on/off switch inside my brain so that when it’s ‘go’ time, I can turn into someone who can endure a lot and do things for others. I think I became a good leader because in everything I did, I thought not of myself but of my team.”

From military life to academia

In 2001, Hakes began taking college courses — both in person at community colleges and in various formats while on base — and eventually earned two associate degrees. Later, he took part in the Warrior Scholar Project at Harvard University, and, after retiring from the Navy in 2019, enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He enjoyed his two years there, but decided to apply to the Eli Whitney Student Program because it had always been his “dream” to come to Yale.

I think I was at first intimidated to apply here, which is why I didn’t do that right off the bat,” he said. “Also, to think ‘I’m going to Yale’ is something that seems like an absurd thought, and there are going to be plenty of people around you who tell you that’s an absurd thought. … But I was always a person who would tell myself that I am capable of doing anything, no matter what people say.”

He arrived in New Haven in 2020, and while his entire time on campus overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, Hakes doesn’t feel that he has missed out on anything. Among many other meaningful experiences, he was excited for the opportunity to learn Old English so that he could read primary sources in that language for his senior thesis on the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. And he found himself surprised and spellbound in the course “The Anthropology of War,” an exploration of human conflict and organized violence.

It was a really challenging course and a reminder of why I wanted to be at a place like Yale,” said Hakes. “I wanted to challenge my own preconceptions, and this course did that. It was a team-taught course that examined things I thought I was an expert on from radically divergent views. I looked at everything under a new light.”

That desire to explore different perspectives was also a reason he joined the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, which was founded in 2010 to promote intellectual diversity on campus. His service helping veterans who wish to advance their educations reflects his fierce belief that those who have served have much to contribute to all facets of society.

I think it’s extremely important to get enlisted people into academia at all levels, and from there into positions of influence,” Hakes said. “Right now, veterans are underrepresented in academia, in the corporate world, in government, and elsewhere, and that means that the world is missing out on an extremely talented and interesting demographic of people. Helping to change that is something I’m passionate about, and I see myself someday being a sort of traveling professor teaching courses for enlisted people.”

But first, Hakes will pursue an M.A. in archaeology at Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

I’ve loved it so much here that I’m really excited to be continuing my studies at Yale,” said Hakes, the father of two daughters who lives with his wife and youngest daughter in Texas when not at Yale.

Risa Sodi, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Eli Whitney Student Program, recalled how a 2017 Eli Whitney student told her that one day his SOF squad leader would come to Yale. “And he did,” said Sodi. “RJ immediately made an impact on the Eli Whitney community and beyond. First, he knows how to show up. When an Eli Whitney event was held, RJ was there.

That same community spirit was evident in Berkeley College, his residential college, where he made many friends (despite the two-decade age gap),” she added. “He’s passionate and knowledgeable about archaeology and classical civilizations and he follows his passions outside of school. And he’s a proud father and family man. I have no doubt he’s soon to become a standout graduate student in our master’s program in archaeology.”

When he begins graduate school, Hakes looks forward to continuing many of the same activities on campus he pursued as an undergraduate, immersing himself in new activities, looking for a little shaking up of his own ideas, and plunging deep into his passion for ancient history and culture.

I’ve always liked history because I like the idea of connecting with people across time,” said the naval veteran. “I’m always thinking about how the worlds inhabited by the people whose lives I study are now completely gone, but that we can still connect with those worlds in our own impermanent one is something magical.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,