Soldiers have had a presence on campus since the Civil War. Above, a unit of soldiers browse through a clothing store during World War II.
When Cassie Michael (A.B. ’13) was deployed to Iraq in 2006, her first assignment was at a checkpoint that had recently been bombed. Michael arrived to find bits of human flesh still clinging to the barbed wire fence around the site. “Oh my god,” she realized. “I am in a war zone.”
She was 19 and had signed up for the Marines because she wasn’t ready for college and wanted a challenge. “I was so naïve,” she says today. Her experience in Iraq—two deployments in four years—changed Michael. She came home to Michigan “with more motivation and gumption,” convinced that “whatever I was going to do, I was going to put everything into it.”
“It” turned out to be an education. Michael had set her eyes on the University of Michigan, and, after being in Iraq, she was confident she could tackle anything. She quickly found out otherwise. The reading load at U-M was enormous, the writing assignments daunting, and the classroom itself intimidating. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she remembers. With her long blonde hair, she looked like a 19-year-old. But she was 26 and had lived in another world—literally and figuratively. It was hard to fit in, and hard to find the resources and friends she needed. At one point she tried rushing. Not a single sorority called her back. Michael was crushed. “Here I was trying my best to have this full college experience, and it just sort of seemed like I wasn’t going to get that.”
Now married and the mother of two, Michael is a graduate student in the U-M School of Social Work and program director for a new U-M initiative, VetCoRe, a one-week, campus-based “boot camp” designed to help college-bound veterans make the switch from military to university life. The first VetCoRe session begins in June. Michael says she wishes the program had been around when she entered Michigan as an undergrad.
VetCoRe is only one of the programs that serve veterans at U-M. Above, veterans participate in the Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE) program.
The “CoRe” in VetCoRe stands for “College Readiness,” and the idea, explains Phil Larson, program director for U-M’s Veteran and Military Services, is to help make it easier for vets to transition from the armed forces into higher ed. VetCoRe is an outgrowth of an earlier initiative, the Warrior-Scholar Project, which U-M hosted from 2014 through 2017. That program, one of several Warrior-Scholar Projects nationwide, brought vets from around the country to Ann Arbor for a week-long summer intensive on everything from academic writing skills to the college admissions process. Taught partly by staff and partly by U-M faculty volunteers, like Department of Classics faculty members Brendan Haug and Donald Sells, the Warrior-Scholar Project was “a crash course in what it’s like to be in university,” says Haug. He signed on to teach for the program because he wanted to be sure vets know that Michigan, as a public university, is “a place where the doors are open.”
Haug and Sells were both struck by the caliber of the veterans they met. Hard-working, disciplined, open to discussing tough topics, the vets were all “very enthusiastic about college,” Sells recalls. Many had attended community college.
A monolith they were not. To Haug’s surprise, some even questioned military policy. “If you were to think that since these are all military people, they’re all going to have exactly the same opinions, you would be dead wrong.”
Launched with substantial funding from LSA, VetCoRe shares the Warrior-Scholar Project’s goal of helping veterans succeed in college, but it focuses on getting them to U-M in the first place. Larson has heard too many stories about former soldiers who had the smarts to go to Michigan but never applied because they thought they’d be rejected. “We want to get them to a place where they’ll feel comfortable applying,” he says.
Ryan Pavel (A.B., ’12), a veteran of the Iraq War, believes efforts like U-M’s veteran-support programs and the Warrior-Scholar Project help vets avoid “imposter syndrome—the feeling that ‘I don’t belong here.’” Pavel remembers how he struggled during his first semester at Michigan. “I didn’t know how many credits or what kinds of classes to take. I didn’t understand academic citations. For my first essay, I googled ‘sources,’ and whatever came up, I just copied the hyperlink and thought that was a credible source.” After graduating from U-M, Pavel helped run U-M’s Warrior-Scholar Project for a few years before going on to get his law degree from the University of Virginia. After law school, Pavel worked as an attorney in Chicago and is now chief operations officer for the nationwide Warrior-Scholar Project.
Larson, too, joined the military before going to college and is keenly aware of the distinctions between the two worlds. “Veterans come from a rigid hierarchical structure where the commanding officer has fearsome, god-like powers, and they enter into the university where many professors prefer to be called by their first name, encourage office hour visits, and cherish debate,” he says.
But it’s precisely because of their military experience that veterans make such good students, Larson adds. “Military service helps young people develop the qualities they need to be successful in college—tenacity, drive, grit, passion, maturity, goal-setting, service, altruism, team work, critical thinking skills. I could go on and on.” In his own case, Larson says he would never have gotten into college if he hadn’t first served in the Air Force.
U-M Veteran and Military Services offer a host of supports for veteran students. In addition to welcome events for veterans, there are peer mentorship programs, veteran-centered campus events and programs, and support from nearly 700 faculty and staff who have served.
“The more than 1,000 faculty, staff, and student veterans who work and study at U-M constantly contradict the notion of veterans being deficient, broken, or inherently violent,” he says. “They’re not only highly competent and high-functioning civilians, but they embody that ethos of service, honor, commitment, and hard work that they learned while in the military.”
Michael Hartman, who oversees transfer student recruitment for LSA, says vets “are one of the populations we want to reach as much as possible.” It’s why his office is helping to fund VetCoRe. U-M currently has around 345 student veterans, undergraduate and graduate, and Hartman would like to see more. They bring “a different life experience to the classroom,” he says, and as such they’re a “big part of LSA’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Talk to a veteran about his or her experience in the armed forces, and you’re likely to get a different story every time.
There are those, like Michael, who saw combat. Others didn’t. Anthony Lenkiewicz, who attended U-M’s Warrior-Scholar Project in 2016 and began his undergraduate education at Dartmouth last fall as a 29-year-old, served in the Coast Guard. Though his primary job was information technology and communications, his duties also included anti-drug operations, migrant interdiction, and search and rescue missions. J.T. Iacovetta, a nuclear engineering student at U-M, was a nuclear operator on Navy warships and submarines in the Pacific.
What’s common among them is that few felt ready for college at 18. Many couldn’t afford it. Some tried it and realized it wasn’t for them. Others wanted to serve their country. That’s what motivated Iacovetta, a Queens native whose mother was injured in the September 11 attacks. He was nine years old at the time and knew from then on he wanted to enlist. He’s hoping now to build on the skills he picked up in the Navy by getting an engineering degree, followed by law school. He wants to be a lobbyist for the nuclear power industry.
Lenkiewicz realized the only way he could pay for college was through the GI Bill—federal funding, available to all vets, which covers the complete cost of tuition and fees, plus a stipend for living expenses.
Michael, who grew up in Flint, speaks for many of her peers when she says she’s not really sure why she enlisted, she just wanted something different. “The fluff answer most vets give about serving in the military is ‘to defend freedom,’” she says. “In my case, I was just a bored kid.”
A dozen years after that fateful conversation with a Marine recruiter, Michael is focused on a career in social work. She wants to help older people, preferably in nursing homes or possibly prisons. “These are people with feelings, and they deserve to be treated with respect,” she says softly. “It sounds corny, but I feel like that’s where I’m called.”
At times she finds it unsettling to think back on her Iraq experience or to hear non-veterans talk about the war. Although she never fired a gun or directly hurt anyone during her deployments, “I was a part of something that hurt a lot of people,” she concedes. “I don’t agree with why we were there. I think a lot of veterans feel that way. Maybe in some way, my wanting to help others now is trying to make up for that and do something good.”
Yet Michael is also grateful to the armed forces—and to her fellow veterans. It’s why she’s excited about VetCoRe. “I’m a weird breed of person,” she smiles. “I’m a vet and really proud. I’m not looking for gratitude or attention, I’m just trying to represent veterans’ interests.”