This Year's Graduates Include Record Number of Veterans

Meghan Berry
May 10, 2012

Two weeks after graduating from high school, Azar Boehm (GS’12) joined the Army. Despite getting good grades, the 18-year-old had been waitlisted by his dream school, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. On an impulse, he enlisted. In 2007, he deployed to Baghdad, where he served for 14 months. With his active duty obligation nearly fulfilled, the sergeant began applying to colleges. But then he was “stop-lossed”—an involuntary extension of his military commitment—and sent to Afghanistan in 2009.

“Being stop-lossed was a blessing in disguise because when I was in Afghanistan, I read an article about Columbia’s outreach to veterans,” said Boehm. “Before that, Columbia was never on my radar. I applied as soon as I could.”

Columbia has increasingly attracted students from the front lines as education benefits for veterans have expanded in recent years. Almost 500 veterans from every branch of the military were enrolled in Columbia’s undergraduate and graduate schools this year, and nearly 90 of them will graduate May 16.

Columbia’s School of General Studies, where Boehm, 25, has studied political science, was founded in 1947 to meet the educational needs of nontraditional students, particularly veterans of World War II. More than half of this year’s class of graduating veterans comes from General Studies—the largest number the school has turned out since the post-World War II era.

“Today, when we assemble a new class of students, we consider our original commitment to veterans, but we do so in the larger context of bringing to Columbia the best and brightest nontraditional students in the world—military veterans are a very important part of this student population,” said Curtis Rodgers, dean of enrollment at General Studies. In April 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, kicked off a national speaking tour on veterans’ issues at Columbia in recognition of the university’s leadership in welcoming a growing community of Iraq and Afghanistan-era student veterans.

Helen Shor (GS’12), a Marine Corps sergeant who needed signed permission from her parents to enlist at age 17, served as an Arabic translator and was deployed three times to Iraq. “Students are often surprised by my experience,” said Shor, 25. “But they’re very respectful and want to hear my perspective.” She will graduate with a bachelor’s in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies and pursue a master’s in international security policy at the School of International and Public Affairs.

The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008—also known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill or, simply, the new GI Bill—provides partial to full tuition assistance, a housing allowance and a book stipend to individuals who served on active duty in the military for more than 90 days after Sept. 11, 2001.

“The transition was harder than I thought it would be,” said Kathleen Chiarantona (SW’12), 28, an Air Force captain. “It was difficult to leave my unit, and the support I received from Columbia was invaluable.” Chiarantona, who considers her new career as a social worker an extension of her service to the country, will be working for a federal program aimed at strengthening American families.

Many student-veterans have found support in the U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University, known as Milvets, founded by a group of student-veterans in 2002. “During my orientation, the head of Milvets already knew who I was,” said Maurice DeCaul (GS’12), a former Marine sergeant studying creative writing at Columbia. “In coming here, I was not just dropped into a new environment and left. I felt a commitment to veterans on campus.” DeCaul is now headed to Rutgers to pursue an M.F.A. in poetry.

In the last year, Milvets, with a membership of more than 250, has organized several events, including a 5K Walk for Life that supported suicide prevention programs and an annual military ball. Boehm, the organization’s vice president, launched a career initiative, inviting recruiters from Google, Bank of America and Credit Suisse, among others, to campus to meet with veterans, some of whom landed internships. Scooby Axson (JRN’12), 34, an Army sergeant, attributes his strong work ethic to his military experience. “I came back alive—other guys didn’t,” he said. “I’m fortunate, and I want to make each day count.”

Rudy Rickner (SIPA/BUS’12), 38, a decorated major in the Marine Corps who served three tours in Iraq over 12 years, founded the Columbia SIPA Veterans Association to support and engage veterans at the School of International and Public Affairs. “When I became a civilian, I was excited and wanted to be there, but I was also uncomfortable—I was a freshman again,” Rickner said. “I wanted to create a network that would offer resources to veterans at SIPA through the beginning, middle and end of their time there and create a SIPA vets alumni base.” The dual M.B.A-M.I.A. candidate completed his coursework in December and is working as a senior policy specialist in advertising at Google in California. Rickner will return to campus for Commencement, where Columbia’s veterans will wear braided red, white and blue honor cords on their shoulders.

Anthony Reillo (SW’12), an Army captain who also studied opera at the New England Conservatory of Music, will sing the national anthem at this year’s Commencement.

“I still get chills when I hear it performed and am thankful that I can contribute in this way,” said Reillo, 33. “I have to say that my experience at Columbia has been fantastic.”