Meet some of the ‘nontraditional’ graduates

A former flight surgeon who returned to Yale after 45 years, a ballet dancer, and a Naval veteran are among this year’s Eli Whitney Students Program graduates.
Sebastian Mendieta, Bryton Foster, and Andy McCallum

Sebastian Mendieta, Bryton Foster, and Andy McCallum

Since 1982, the Eli Whitney Students Program (EWSP) has offered students with “non-traditional” backgrounds — but who possess exceptional potential, determination, and maturity — an opportunity to receive a Yale College education. Since then, hundreds of Eli Whitney students — military veterans and entrepreneurs, activists and artists — have received undergraduate degrees, in many cases years after their pursuit of a degree in higher education had been interrupted.

The Class of 2023 includes seven Eli Whitney students, each of whom took a different pathway to Yale and each of whom left an indelible mark on the university community.

This week, we asked three of these graduates about their time at Yale, the pathways that led them here, and where they’re going next. Here are their stories, in their own words.

Andy McCallum never finished his Yale degree, but returned 45 years later

Andy McCallum
Andy McCallum

Andy McCallum was originally a member of the Yale College Class of 1978, but he transferred to McMaster University in Canada and earned an M.D. degree (without ever obtaining a bachelor’s degree). He had a long career in emergency medicine, serving as a flight surgeon, the president and CEO of Ornge, a provider of air ambulance and critical care transport in Ontario, and, most recently, as a medical consultant.

I matriculated for the first time at Yale in 1974 but left after one year and returned home to Canada. I had a successful career as a physician and executive but always regretted not finishing my degree at Yale. So, when I retired in 2020, I explored coming back to finish the degree. Luckily, Dean Risa Sodi [assistant dean of Yale College and director of advising and special programs] was willing to help. And with her able guidance I was successful in gaining admission to the Eli Whitney Students Program. I only needed a year to complete the necessary credits and was very fortunate to have a forbearing spouse (who came with me).

Returning to Yale I majored in History of Science and Medicine. This was a natural choice for me after a medical career. I think that physicians generally do not have a sufficient grounding in where the profession has come from. I certainly did not. It is a complex history that is interwoven with the history of the societies in which medicine has existed. It’s pretty humbling to learn about that history.

Returning to the campus has been extraordinary. The resources here are so deep. The beauty of the campus was lost on me as a first-year student, and, of course, the buildings have been upgraded in the four-and-a-half decades intervening. We have been to the Yale Rep, seen noted speakers, attended various functions, and rekindled old friendships. It has been fun to meet and get to know my Eli Whitney classmates and to interact with the students of today. It has also been fascinating to compare experiences at Yale from the 1970s with the present.”

For Bryton Foster, a major shift in direction — but still time to dance

Bryton Foster
Bryton Foster

For several years, Bryton Foster put off college to dance professionally, performing ballet in California, Colorado, and elsewhere. When he decided to come to Yale he veered off his expected academic paths. Taking on major roles in a dance production was a special part of his Yale experience. In addition to earning his degree in two majors, he also completed the Advanced Language Certificate in German.

Before college I danced ballet professionally for several years, an undertaking that was somewhat intellectual, but chaotic and certainly not academic. My interests had always been art and history, and I never thought I would major in math. But when I chose to enroll in community college, my first class was calculus. I was drawn to the challenge and structure of mathematics, and calculus revealed beautiful features of the world that I had never known before.

After that, I wanted to find a university that appreciated STEM as well as art, where I could study without limitations but also continue to be exposed to artistic beauty and grow as a person. Yale provided this opportunity, and the flexibility provided by the Eli Whitney Students Program in particular has really allowed me to explore a wide array of subjects that interest me while also engaging in extracurriculars and taking advantage of all Yale has to offer.

At Yale, I double majored in computer science and mathematics, and economics. After taking the course ‘CS50’ [an introductory computer science course] during my sophomore year, I really fell in love with coding. I kept adding computer science courses to my schedule — at the time thinking it was ‘just to learn a little more’ or ‘maybe go for the certificate’ — before finally realizing that I had taken enough classes that I could switch joint majors and still continue in economics!

Mathematics interests me because I find beauty in its structure and logic, and I was drawn to computer science because of how simply and explicitly it is able to apply many mathematical principles; economics interests me because of its unique placement at the intersection of STEM and the social sciences. I’m fortunate to be able to complete this coupling of majors that encompasses all three topics.

In the spring semester of 2022, the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company put on a production of the classical ballet ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’ I took on a lot of responsibility for producing the show, including managing costumes and props, organizing lighting and sound, choreographing pieces, and dancing in nearly every scene. I was also in the infamously challenging course “CPSC 323” [“Introduction to Systems Programming and Computer Organization”] during that semester, and the week of the production was probably one of the most stressful of my Yale career. However, it was also extremely gratifying when the show came together successfully, and it brought the participants closer together as a company and as friends. I look back on it now as one of the most rewarding experiences of my time at Yale.

I was fortunate to have been offered an engineering role at a quantitative trading firm in Chicago. I’m really excited for this destination, as this is possibly my dream job and is a unique position in which I may actually be able to utilize skills from all of my majors. Since the job does not start until August, I’m planning on spending the summer in Europe. I’ve never left the U.S. before, and I didn’t get to study abroad during my time at Yale because of the pandemic, so I’m looking forward to seeing a new part of the world, and maybe practicing the German language skills I’ve developed at Yale!”

Naval veteran Sebastian Mendieta navigates a wide-open future

Sebastian Mendieta
Sebastian Mendieta

After spending six years in U.S. Naval Special Operations as a rescue swimmer and helicopter door gunner, Sebastian Mendieta joined Wesleyan University as a member of the Posse Foundation Veterans Program, which identifies talented students from diverse backgrounds, provides full scholarships, and helps them prepare for leadership roles. Two years later, Mendieta, who is originally from Bogotá, Colombia, transferred to Yale.

While at Wesleyan University, I reflected back on my time in the military and my time transitioning to the civilian world. As a veteran, I have been fortunate. I understood the complexity of the military bureaucracy well enough so that I was able to access my disability and education benefits. A large percentage of my fellow veterans are not as fortunate. I began volunteering with Connecticut Veterans Law Center and found a space advocating for veterans with improper discharges. These discharges significantly impact veterans’ lives: housing, education, healthcare, and day-to-day expenses.

I was drawn to Yale because I knew I would be near the top legal minds working at the school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic and publishing research in the Yale Law Journal on how our country is failing our veterans. With my volunteer work, I knew as an Eli Whitney Student I could integrate my classes and my volunteer work more seamlessly than at my current university.

I was additionally drawn to Eli Whitney Students Program because I was looking for a program that catered explicitly to non-traditional students of any demographic — not just veterans. I found that I was a unique veteran as I had spent an extended amount of time in the military and was no longer a ‘young’ 20-year-old veteran student. I had a family and a home; I was looking for a group with a wide range of experiences. I connected with other non-traditional students who, like me, had children throughout their undergraduate experience. The power of the Eli Whitney Students Program is the seamless integration into Yale academics and the network of fellow students who allowed me to find support through similar and shared experiences to better navigate my time at Yale. Having children as an undergraduate student was extremely challenging, but thanks to my friends and faculty, I was able to be both a present student and father.

At Yale, my interests pivoted a bit. I ended up majoring in political science. I began focusing on my Colombian immigrant identity, which led me to classes on the erosion of democracy and statecraft. Having left Colombia at the age of 10, I was able to explore my identity and roots in academia through Spanish courses on film and South American literature. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy during my junior year. That was indeed the highlight of my time at Yale — the study of grand strategy is attempting to understand how individuals and groups can accomplish large ends with limited means. As an enlisted sailor, I did not have any capacity to debate national political decisions and how they affected my day-to-day work. There were daily reminders that I was not an officer; it was a constant reminder of the weight of a college degree. I yearned to understand how decisions were made at levels above me and to be able to participate in them.

Through an interdisciplinary course, the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy explored literature and case studies and connected how radically different ideas and choices can be combined to better understand decisions with and without an anachronistic lens. Through the support of the Eli Whitney Students Program and my participation in the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, I pursued an education tailored to my experience and interests. One of my favorite practitioners in the program was Dan Kurtz-Phelan, current editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. He was the practitioner for my module titled “Geopolitics and the Great Powers,” in which we carefully dissected the history and trajectory of the American relationship with China and what that might look like a few years from now.

After graduation, I plan to enjoy time with my family, grow a huge garden, and then a community center. I’d love a space to bring individuals together — over coffee, shared interests, a common need for flexible childcare, and maybe some pickleball thrown in. I haven’t lost sight of my goal to support veterans, but my methods are looking a bit different these days.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale Commencement 2023