Finding a Place for the Young Veteran
You wouldn’t know from looking at Didar Fares, Ali Green, and Piragathesh Subramanian that they are military veterans enrolled in the Columbia University School of General Studies. They are young, carrying backpacks and wearing beanies and baseball caps as they sip out of reusable coffee mugs. No one looks like they spend excessive amounts of time in the Dodge Fitness Center doing bicep curls and there isn’t a single tattoo in sight.
Of course, there is no typical General Studies student, or at least there shouldn’t be; the school was created in 1947 by then-University President Dwight David Eisenhower to be a place for the non-traditional student to receive a world-class education. At the time of its founding, the school was comprised almost exclusively of United States military veterans. Today, however, it is home to students who have taken off more than two years between their high school and undergraduate studies.
On any given day, Lewisohn Hall is full of former ballerinas and motocross racers, single parents wrangling children, and Navy SEALS. But it also houses a community of international military veterans who served their home countries due to mandatory conscription. You have undoubtedly sat next to these students in your classes and had no idea.
Mandatory military service is not something we think about in the United States. The words bring to mind images of the Vietnam War draft and the protests that ensued. Perhaps, if you’re male, you remember registering with the U.S. Selective Service System on your 18th birthday. But conscription is not something considered by American high school students when applying for college. For most students attending a four-year institution immediately after high school, military service of any kind would be, quite simply, non-traditional.
But for citizens and permanent residents of countries like Singapore, Israel, and Norway, entering the military is the natural next step. At the age of 18, immediately following high school, Fares began his mandatory military service in Norway doing intelligence and security.
“It’s basically a long-ass story,” Fares says with a laugh.
This is something I heard a lot when speaking with veterans. While they were all eager and open to talk about their time in the service and their transition to GS, there was inevitably a moment of hesitation when recounting the specifics of their time in the military. “Basically” and “It’s complicated but” were utilized almost as a shield to prevent further questioning. Though never directly stated the assumption was clear, I just wouldn’t understand.
Despite the gap in their education, these students often still think of themselves as “traditional”. To them, a break in education due to military service is normal, so when they applied to University upon the completion of their enlistment, it was as a traditional student.
“I applied to CC first,” said Fares. “While applying to CC, I received a message [from Admissions] that said ‘hey, since you did mandatory military service, you would probably fit more here [in General Studies].’ And I said ‘if you think so, then go for it!”
Fares is not alone in his thinking. Subramanian also began his application process with Columbia College and was accepted prior to completing his military service in Singapore. Upon leaving the military, however, the University transferred him to GS because he had interrupted his studies by more than two years.
But what happens upon arrival? How do these students in their early twenties fit in with GS and the larger Columbia community?
The creation of this subgroup of individuals yields perhaps one of the most interesting social situations at the University. While many foreign military veterans make friends across the Columbia campus, there is also a built-in community of similarly experienced individuals within General Studies. Singaporeans find Singaporeans, Israelis find Israelis, and military veterans in general find common ground with one another.
“I think my first couple of weeks being here I spoke more Hebrew than I spoke English,” said Green, a first-year at GS and a former Israeli Defense Force soldier. “There is something about having had the experience of being in the military. If I talk to someone and he tells me that he was in the US military, there are things that we can bond on.”
While Green found that most of her initial friends at General Studies were fellow former IDF soldiers, this is not the case for everyone.
“I don’t think you form groups just because you served in the army,” noted Fares. “But it’s a very easy conversation starter.”
Young, foreign veterans straddle an interesting line within the university. They are young enough to go to an EC party, yet old enough to get in to 1020 without a fake-ID. Because GS has separate housing, the key to integration within the larger Columbia community is clubs.
Fares joined a Nordic-Scandinavian society where he befriended CC and SEAS students and Subramanian became president of the Singapore-Columbia Association. By joining these student groups, Fares and Subramanian attempt to bridge the gap between themselves and other students their own age.
This demographic of student is becoming increasingly common in General Studies. While other universities have programs for students who have taken a gap in their studies, the requisite number of years spent away from the classroom is often much higher, leaving students like Green, Subramanian, and Fares without a place where they feel comfortable.
The feeling towards General Studies from all of the veterans I talked to was overwhelmingly positive. Fares pointed to the maturity of General Studies students as a key factor in reaffirming that the transfer of his application from CC was indeed the right decision.
As their communities in New York grow, word spreads back home and the number of applications begins to increase.
“I think that it’s starting to become more well known in Israel that this is an option,” Green said. “More and more people want to be able to do this and I think every year the amount of Israelis grows and grows and grows because it’s an incredible opportunity, it’s an incredible education.”
It’s not always clear that these students walk among us. They fit in seamlessly, as they should, and provide a much-needed dose of perspective and experience that the Columbia community often lacks.
At the General Studies convocation that happens on the steps of Low Library every fall during New Student Orientation, the GS Dean of Students addresses the incoming class and asks students to stand when they hear themselves described. It’s a surprisingly moving exercise that forces students to consider how lucky they are to study among students with such diverse experiences.
Stand if you are a parent. Stand if you the first person in your family to attend university. Stand if you served your country in the military.
A crowd of people from countries across the globe rose to their feet to the applause of their classmates.
The author is a student at the School of General Studies