How do we get veterans on the Ivy League radar?

Kaylah Jackson
October 16, 2018 - 2:57 pm

(Photo credit: Sameer A. Khan)

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When Adam Behrendt left the Navy as a hospital corpsman to attend Stanford, he sat in the crowd during Convocation to hear the Dean of Admissions gladly proclaim “we’ve admitted four veterans.”

In the context of about 1900 admitted Stanford students, Behrendt was 0.001% of the student population during his first year on campus.

As a Navy recon corpsman, he got training in everything from scuba diving, to skydiving to demolition. He eventually finished his service in 2015 working in the U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa, Japan to jumpstart his dream of attending medical school.

Working toward his bachelors in mathematics at Stanford is just a step towards his plan.  But Behrendt says, as soon as class starts, everyone promptly forgets that as a veteran, you’re different than everyone else. 

(Photo credit: Sameer A. Khan)

Being different at Stanford posed some challenges, but Behrendt found a network of support in the Ivy League Veteran Council, which connected him with veterans on other campuses who understood his experience.

Through the organization’s meetings, he and other veterans increased their own visibility as veterans in the Ivy space and put together ideas for how school administrators can better support the needs of student veterans.

The Ivy League Veterans Council community also became a familiar face for Marine veteran, Ryan Kokell.

After three years in the Marine Corps, Kokell studied at Penn State University but soon after his first year, he transferred to Cornell. There, he noticed an immediate difference.

“While Penn State boasted like 5,000 undergraduate student veterans, Cornell only had 22 when I arrived on campus,” said Kokell. While Penn State had a well-coordinated veterans center, at Cornell, it wasn't until Kokell ran into another veteran by chance that even knew other service members were on campus. That run-in sparked a larger conversation about better integrating student veterans, particularly accommodating veterans with financial aid.

While many Ivy Leagues have generous financial aid packages, often times, they don’t coexist well with military financial aid benefits like the G.I. Bill or the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The Yellow Ribbon Program allows the VA to fund a veteran’s tuition in the event it exceeds the annual maximum allowed amount for private institutions. Upon arriving at school, Kokell found that Cornell was allocating limited Yellow Ribbon funds to military dependents, often leaving student veterans who qualified for the aid unable to pay for school.

(Photo credit: Sameer A. Khan)

“The more students interact with veterans and the more veterans interact with the administration, it’ll just be a more natural progression as far as the university accommodating us,” said Kokell.  

At Stanford, Behrendt encountered a similar issue that prevented his wife from moving with him to California during his first year. After seeing a fellow veteran go through the same obstacle, Behrendt called the U.S. Attorney's Office to ask about getting Stanford’s financial aid policy changed so veterans could use both their school’s financial aid and their military education benefits.  

“You have to essentially come here, be a student, be a different student and also fight battles to get policies changed to work for you,” Behrendt. “They look at you and say ‘oh you’re 18 you should fit in our budget” and the answer is “well I [sic] don’t because I’m married.’”

Changing policy is part of the core principals of the Ivy League Veterans Council (ILVC). Founded by Marine and Columbia University graduate Peter Kiernan, ILVC advocates for the undergraduate recruitment of veterans as well as better campus integration, networking and post-graduate success of student veterans.

(Photo credit: Sameer A. Khan)

With Kokell as the chairman of the ILVC and Behrendt as the president, the pair has made strides to making life on their respective campuses better for veterans and with the organization, they plan to take these changes to other Ivies.

After months of discussion, in May of 2016, Michael Kotlikoff, Provost of Cornell University, pledged to increase the number of undergraduate student veterans to 100 by 2020. Since Kokell arrived, they’ve grown from 22 to 39 veterans on campus, on track to reach their goal in the next two years.

Stanford has come a long way since Behrendt first started his first year with only three other veterans; the campus currently boasts 30 undergraduate and 80 graduate student veterans. While not all Ivies share that same growth, with the Ivy League Veterans Council, other schools can learn how to better accommodate veterans.

But even that can be challenging when veterans aren’t even applying to the schools.  

“There are plenty of qualified veterans who have 4.0 GPAs, stellar extracurriculars, having the ability to get great letters of recommendations, and yet they don’t apply. They apply to lower-caliber schools because that seems more realistic to them,” said Kokell “I think that’s the biggest stigma.”

For all the veterans within the Ivy League Veterans Council, they value the experience and knowledge gained from state universities and community colleges but know that the Ivies offer something unique.

"It's another thing to learn the material, and leaves school with a network you know you can rely on when you want to change the world. Schools like Stanford give you that network," Behrendt.

While the veteran student population grows on Ivy League campuses, the overall message to interested veterans is to simply “apply.” As Kokell says, “all of us have been promoted to a position that we weren’t sure if we were able to do...just like you did in the military, you just rise to the occasion.”

Once admitted, then the work begins, making sure the university administration properly serves the veteran community. The Ivy League Veterans Council is doing just that.

     Contact us about this article or share your story at gethelp@connectingvets.com.