While the typical undergraduate can only grasp the Cold War era through textbooks, Rose Gibbs, who graduated from the School of General Studies last spring, has been to the Soviet satellite state of East Germany herself. It was there, almost 40 years ago, that she paid $3 for a full seven-course, soup-to-nuts Russian meal.
Gibbs tells me that in the 1980s, she served as a U.S. Army soldier on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, hence her status as a “nontraditional” undergraduate student. But just a moment later, we effortlessly switch to discussing topics that any two undergraduate college students around here would talk about: which political science classes at Columbia are most difficult, the brutal New York winters, and the happy memories of receiving our “Congratulations!” admission letters. Though Gibbs’ stint in the thick of Cold War tensions would seem to differentiate her, the truth is that Columbia is home to hundreds of other student veterans with similarly intense and historically significant stories.
As of the 2018-19 school year, there were 477 U.S. military veterans enrolled in the School of General Studies as undergraduates and postbac premed students. In a population of 2,568 General Studies students overall, this constituted a significant fraction of the school as a whole—18.6 percent, to be exact. In fact, Columbia is actually home to more veterans than four times all other Ivy League schools combined.
In 2017, women made up 17.5 percent of the total military force. Today, the women veteran population is the fastest-growing veteran demographic with no signs of slowing down. For many of these women, higher education is already on their minds—82 percent of post-9/11 women veterans joined the military specifically to receive the funding for college, and women veterans are more likely than men to be enrolled in or have graduated from college. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that, across all forms of post-secondary education, between 21 and 27 percent of student veterans in the U.S. are female.
But compared to the national statistics, Columbia lags behind. For the last academic year, the percentage of U.S. military women veterans in General Studies falls at 10.5 percent.
According to Gibbs, this is partly due to recruitment practices, which she believes could do more to funnel qualified and high-achieving women veterans into General Studies’ applicant pool.
Across conversations with nearly a dozen women veterans who are enrolled in or have recently graduated from General Studies—a group of women almost as large as one fifth of the current demographic—only Gibbs said she had been recruited directly.
“I guarantee you that, today, some woman left the military,” Gibbs says. “She would do a fantastic job here, but she doesn't know that she can come here.”
In the years immediately after World War II, one half of the entirety of Columbia’s students were veterans. General Studies was founded in 1947 specifically to accommodate returning veterans. Between the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 and the 2017 Forever GI Bill—which removes the 15-year limit for a veteran to use their government-allocated education funds—veterans today have significantly increased access to an affordable post-secondary education.
Columbia’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program—which essentially means the University will match the funds the government grants to a student veteran toward tuition—has made getting a degree increasingly affordable for student veterans. Columbia is known for its longstanding support of veterans and the General Studies website states that U.S. military veterans “bring a wealth of life experience to the classroom, and contribute in a unique way to the diversity and cultural richness of the University.” The late Dean Peter Awn and current Vice Dean Curtis Rodgers are both highly regarded for their advocacy for student veterans. In an interview with The Eye, Rodgers says that Columbia has made “the idea of having veterans in the classroom a far more common thing than it was 10 years ago.” He adds that it is a leading priority of General Studies to continue supporting the now vast veteran community on campus.
When it comes to seeking out and recruiting veterans, Columbia implements a myriad of methods. One approach is through the U.S. Marines Corps Leadership Scholar Program, of which Columbia is a founding partner, according to Rodgers. The U.S. Marine Corps Community Services website states that the program “helps exceptional Marines who want to pursue their education at highly selective schools after they transition out of the Marine Corps,” by assisting with applications, interviews, essays, and by partnering the potential students with nonprofits focused on getting veterans into selective schools. But as of March 2019, the U.S. Marine Corps is 92 percent male.
Columbia also forms relationships with the command centers of Special Operations Forces units—the groups responsible for carrying out high-profile “special ops” missions—with the intent of encouraging those transitioning out of the military to apply to General Studies. Both historically and today, the SOF consist of predominantly male service members.
Rodgers acknowledges this point. “The other thing that skews us a bit here is that we have an overrepresentation of student veterans who come to us through the Special Forces and Special Operations, and those tend to skew even more male,” he says. “Now it makes sense that we see representation from those units because those are people who have really excelled in service. They've risen to the top in service and combat-related special operations areas … but those areas tend to skew heavily men because of the prior combat restrictions that were in place.”
But he also notes that General Studies has acted proactively by recruiting at places like the Defense Language Institute, a military research institution at which there is almost twice the national average of enlisted women. He adds that during such recruitment trips, admissions officers highlight examples of women veterans in positions of student leadership to show how it’s “possible this leadership is translated from service into education into our student body.”
But if you are a woman veteran interested in higher education, you are more likely to be recruited through outreach at your community college. There, General Studies recruiters can put Columbia on the radar of high-achieving and academically inclined student veterans interested in transferring to a four-year university. Or you might hear about General Studies through attending the Student Veterans of America Conference, the largest annual gathering of student veterans in the U.S., where General Studies representatives make an appearance in hopes of connecting with potential applicants. Or through Columbia’s Center for Veteran Transition and Integration that launched in 2017, which is meant to direct any veterans in search of information on attaining high education through accessible online programs.
These last few methods of seeking out veterans are less individualized, but at least have the capability of catching the attention of both men and women veterans. When it comes to recruiting women veterans, the driving question is whether General Studies recruiters can fully depend on these methods, or whether even more targeted recruitment of high-achieving, qualified women is necessary.
This question is on the radar of General Studies leadership. Rodgers notes that as barriers to women engaging in combat and other historically male positions fall in modern times, General Studies expects to “see way more women representatives, and they'll be part of our prospect and applicant pool, too, in greater numbers we hope. But it's not as if we can just sit around and wait for that to happen because that's a decades-long process.”
Emily Schwartz, a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit organization with the goal of “expanding educational opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds,” emphasizes the importance of including women veterans in the classroom.
“To the extent that we care about enriching the educational experience for everyone that is involved,” she says, “I think having female veterans represented in a greater way than they are now is something that is really important.”
Finding and connecting with General Studies women veterans on campus meant learning about the wide range of unorthodox enlistment experiences, and how their winding paths eventually led to Columbia. Of these stories, a few women veterans on campus reported finding out about Columbia’s unique, veteran-rich General Studies community through the aforementioned community college informational visits.
One of these women is Rachel Ballew, a senior in General Studies and the first female president of the Columbia University Milvets, the largest veteran organization on campus. In 2011, Ballew was part of the Female Engagement Team in Afghanistan, an extremely selective, all-women group started by the U.S. Marine Corps where women were deployed alongside Army special unit forces for the sake of handling cultural sensitivities between men and women in the area. Enthusiastic and adventurous, her personality shines through as she recounts her teenage years being characterized by her “people person” personality, and love of the outdoors in her Montana hometown. At age 19, she says, she had limited options—so she decided to enlist in the military. When she recounts her later decision to apply to Columbia, she says, “I wanted to go as far as I could. As far, as high as I could.”
Ballew’s path from deployment to Columbia’s campus began when a General Studies alumnus visited the California community college she was attending at the time. Similarly, Jenna Rackerby, who will graduate from General Studies in 2020, is a U.S. Navy veteran and New York University transfer student that encountered General Studies recruitment through the community college she attended after leaving the military. Rackerby scored in the 99th percentile in her Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, but worked as a culinary specialist in the Navy, a job that she says would not likely attract the attention of Columbia recruiters. Based on the conversations she’s had with other women veterans on this campus, she believes that recruitment of women veterans primarily comes through community college.
In all of my conversations with women veterans, Gibbs was the only one who was directly recruited. She was approached through her community college and specifically through Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society for two-year colleges, where she believes her high GPA drew the attention of General Studies recruiters. After attending a private event held by the school and learning that her application fee would be waived, applying to General Studies felt like a pretty natural course of action.
Though Gibbs’ story shows a successful example of individualized recruitment, she says flatly that “there are few [recruiters] that are doing that.”
There are also those who discovered Columbia through word-of-mouth or online searches. Asha Castleberry is a U.S. Army veteran who graduated in 2012 from the School of International and Public Affairs. Today, she acts as a mentor to potential General Studies student veterans. Though she didn’t attend General Studies, she says that she only learned about Columbia when a Marine she was friends with invited her to an event at SIPA, after knowing her interest in pursuing international affairs.
Four more General Studies U.S. military women veterans I spoke to heard about General Studies only through a friend or through their own online research. Yve Schutt, a former U.S. Air Force linguist who identifies as nonbinary and will graduate from General Studies in 2020, heard about and eventually applied to General Studies after finding out about it through a friend’s post in a Facebook group.
A concern that arises for many of these veteran students is that ending up at Columbia can feel highly coincidental, and that there are many more qualified women without the personal connections to guide them towards the veteran hub and top-tier university that is Columbia.
Recruitment extends beyond just how women veterans are ending up at Columbia, greatly influencing how these same women experience campus throughout their time here. Simply put, if men greatly outnumber women in the military, then men greatly outnumber women in the veteran population on campus. This isn’t a phenomenon that goes away when joining a veteran-based club. This comes with great implications, as some women report feeling disconnected from the community at large. But neither students nor administrators sit idly by; both parties have made efforts in working to create a positive experience for the women veterans who decide to commit to and become a part of the Columbia community.
General Studies Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch has said it is a priority of hers that the women veteran community on campus receives personalized attention. In her nearly two-year tenure as dean, she has implemented monthly roundtable gatherings for women veterans to meet one another and accomplished General Studies alumni. Several women who have attended the events refer to them positively. Rackerby says she has not “participated in Milvets all semester—all year, actually—but I've been trying to make it to the lunches. And I think also having a relationship with your female dean at your school is kind of a big deal.”
Lady Milvets, separate from the Milvets, is an informal social club formed by women veterans for women veterans for the occasional Friday happy hour or meet-up. The development of the group highlights the efforts of these students to create a sense of community within the broader body of student veterans. While several women reported positive encounters with the Milvets and felt that the large gender disparity did not detract from their experience with the group, others apprehensively expressed that having more women veterans on campus would make for an even more inclusive veteran community.
The population of nonbinary student veterans is also small. “It is ignored a lot that women veterans exist and nonbinary veterans exist,” Schutt says. “Being trans, a trans veteran, that's like unicorn level of ‘those people don't exist,’ so I think that's an issue on campus, just acknowledging these are two identities you can have at once.”
In finding more ways to intentionally diversify gender in the recruitment process, the best course of action remains unclear. Rodgers notes that there is no “magic bullet” solution, but that increasing the number of women veterans at General Studies will require input from student leaders and student veterans on campus. Rodgers says, “We do really take seriously the feedback and support and guidance that they give us because we know often times that they know better than we do about what's possible.”
Christine Schwartz from Service to School, a nonprofit designed to help military veterans apply and get into college, says that while “there's always work to do in making sure that veterans are able to go to the best colleges possible,” she does not divide the veteran population up, male versus female. She notes that there are several tiers that apply to all veterans: Students bear the responsibility of seeking out the right colleges for them, universities are responsible for creating comfortable settings for veterans, and the Department of Defense and military transition programs should teach those transitioning out of the military about the wide education opportunities available to them.
Kristofer Goldsmith, a student veteran who will graduate from General Studies in 2020 and who is chief investigator for the Vietnam Veterans of America, believes that part of the onus falls on current General Studies student veterans to reach out to potential applicants. He remembers how his own path to Columbia began at the Student Veterans of America National Conference when he met a visiting member of the Columbia Milvets over a cup of coffee.
“Frankly it's really sad that the students themselves here at the school aren't working harder to establish a relationship with [Student Veterans of America], reason being is it is the only organization that holds a national conference where young veterans show up,” Goldsmith says.
But Gibbs remains adamant that the administration bears the ultimate responsibility in locating and individually reaching out to high-achieving female veterans. She tosses out the idea of hiring women veteran alumni to recruit other women.
“We need to approach recruiting women differently than we need to approach recruiting men,” she says. “How exactly we’re going to do that, I don’t know. We have a lot of smart minds over here. We should be able to figure this out.”
While the methods behind Columbia’s recruitment of women veterans invite room for discourse, Gibbs thinks the stakes are clear. Underrepresentation in academia is underrepresentation in the outside world. “If veteran women are underrepresented here, then ergo, they’re underrepresented in the general world as leaders.”
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