Adventures in Higher Education

A Post-9/11 Veteran’s Long Road to Learning

Dennis White is a recently-transitioned Army Infantry NCO with three tours downrange under his well-worn reflective belt. Dennis is currently an ambassador with service2school and a Posse Wesleyan 2 scholar.

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I sat in the back of a HMMWV, shuttling troops back from a Fort Hood range with the commander and XO of what would be my last active duty unit. I was attempting to be quiet, sitting behind the driver, when the commander realized he had never spoken to me since I joined his troop. Not once. He turned around in his seat and gave me the routine he probably saw in a briefing somewhere: “Sergeant White, are you getting out? What are you plans? Are you a good student?” All in an overly patronizing tone. The final question seemed innocuous enough on the surface, but made my blood boil: “What school do you want to attend?”

I replied, “UT, sir.” The CO and XO looked at each other with sarcastic smirks. Both scoffed and looked back at me with a half-smiles, as if I were a child that said, “Gee golly, guys, I wanna be an astronaut!” Their expressions and attitudes infuriated me and, for a moment, made me question myself. However, I made a decision to dig deeper and redouble my efforts, perhaps even set my sights a little higher.

Earlier that year, I had made the decision to end my service and put together a hasty plan to pursue my dreams of higher education. More than anything, I wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin. When I spoke to the admissions office, they promptly told me the quickest way to gain entry was to attend a local community college and transfer after accumulating enough credit hours. Sounds easy enough, right?

The answer is yes, but if you want to be competitive for more prestigious universities you have to get involved in the community in a meaningful way while maintaining respectable grades. Good places to start for me included volunteering for a political campaign, helping register people to vote, and tutoring other veterans. The other side of the equation was simple — work hard. I worked harder than I did in the military, this time without needing the First Sergeant driving me to get results. This was my choice, my decision.

Before I separated from the Army, I enrolled at Austin Community College and started the long process of working my ass off to get into UT. Along the way, some of my professors advised me to think bigger, to set my sights higher. So I started looking into Harvard, Yale, Amherst and other elite New England colleges. There’s no use in having goals if you don’t set them high enough, right?

Fortunately, I discovered two organizations that helped me chart my path and changed my life: and The Posse Foundation. Service2school is an incredible organization founded by absurdly ambitious and generous Ivy League veteran alumni, aimed at helping our nation’s veterans navigate the complicated song and dance routine most of us come to know as the college application process. The Posse Foundation identifies high-performing public high school students who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes and forms them into groups — or posses— for accelerated leader development and education at premiere educational institutions.

My Service2school ambassador quickly assessed my strengths and weaknesses, and calmed my nerves with a frank discussion on the challenges of the application process at an extremely selective school. My grades were good, my test scores high, and my service record impeccable. But I still needed help — I reached out to an old Army buddy and a high school friend to help edit my application essays. The Posse Foundation channeled me through a rigorous application process that included an intense series of three interviews, concluding in New York City.

The acceptance call caught me on the train to the airport. It was a validation of the promise of my abilities and proof that my dreams were mine to achieve. I could not have accomplished what I did without help, a reminder that we are stronger together than we are alone. One phone call represented a long, rewarding journey from the backseat of a HMMWV on Fort Hood.

Today, our veterans have access to an unprecedented amount of help to fulfill their educational ambitions. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides educational benefits to an entirely new generation of veteran students. Top tier universities — including Yale, Amherst, Tulane, Georgetown and many more — are actively recruiting veterans to join their campuses. And organizations such as Service2school, the Posse Foundation, and the Warrior-Scholar project provide assistance to veterans seeking admission to the nation’s elite educational institutions.

For many transitioning enlisted troops, the advice received is often negative or very limited in scope: Focus on community college, Think about a trade school, or Are you sure college is for you? Why should we allow anyone to tell us what we cannot do, rather than what we can do? Instead, I ignored those who scoffed or rolled their eyes. I leveraged a network of friends, peers, and veteran support organizations to gain admission to Wesleyan University, a far more selective school than anything I ever hoped to achieve.

I dared to dream.

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