General Studies Graduate and Army Medic Is Ready to Push the Envelope Again

May 18, 2011

Sergeant John McClelland, a former special operations forces combat medic with the U.S. Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion, graduates this week with 22 other School of General Studies student veterans. The 27-year-old received his bachelor of arts degree in history, after partaking in some of history’s most significant recent events. Before enrolling at Columbia, he served for five years in Afghanistan and Iraq, treating soldiers, civilians and enemy combatants.

Born on Clark Air Base on Luzon Island in the Philippines, McClelland was raised in the Chesapeake Bay area by his American airman father and Filipina mother. After graduating from high school, McClelland purchased a one-way ticket to Paris—the cheapest flight to Europe he could find.

Twenty-four hours later he arrived in France with $500 in savings, a suitcase, a guitar and the desire to push beyond his comfort zone. He spent the next six months seeking new experiences and different points of view among people he had never met.

It was 2002, and Iraq was a subject of debate among the friends he was making abroad. He had his own doubts.

With his tourist visa expiring and his pockets empty, he returned home to Virginia, still thinking about Iraq. He weighed his options.

“I wanted to do something with purpose and meaning,” he says of his thinking about the war. “What’s the value of an idea if you don’t use or test it?”

In April 2003, five days after the Iraq invasion, McClelland began the U.S. Army’s basic training.

He deployed four times in Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He treated innumerable casualties and witnessed the best and worst in people. In between firefights, while waiting for the next combat event, he spent hours reading, thinking and debating with his fellow soldiers.

“Canvas tents and plywood hooches were our salons,” he recalled.

After a handful of deployments, the experience was beginning to wear on him.

“I shot and shot back, ambushed and ambushed back, again and again,” he says. So he left the Army in January 2008.

After his military service, McClelland, who was class president and debate captain at his suburban Virginia high school, wanted a top-notch education at a university that would, like his experiences in Paris and the Army, push his comfort zone and test his ideas.

“I like putting myself in extreme situations, and Columbia fit that bill,” he says.

Courses like Contemporary Western Civilization and Historiography of the Other challenged him to ask different questions and analyze his experience in the army. As a history major, he chose classes with subjects he felt not just attracted to, but obliged to study.

“I had to study the history of the Soviet-Afghan War,” he says. “I had to learn Persian, because if I didn’t, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything meaningful or purposeful with my life.”

During his time at Columbia, McClelland didn’t limit his work to the classroom. He was the top cadet in the Ram Battalion U.S. Army ROTC, served as vice-president and president of the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University, and lobbied on Capitol Hill for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program education benefits.

He strongly believes that veterans benefit from the different value system they experience on Columbia’s campus, and thinks that exposure to the veterans’ point of view is likewise beneficial to the entire Columbia community.

This summer McClelland will begin work as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company while serving with the Rhode Island National Guard. He also plans to finish writing a novel based on his experience in Afghanistan.

“It’s an appropriate way to close that chapter in my life,” he says.