From Soldier to ScholarNew initiative aims to recruit more military veterans

Kevin Burke wasn’t ready for college coming out of high school. Not mature enough, not dedicated to his studies. And there was the lingering trauma of his aunt's death in the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. There were other things he felt compelled to do.

So he joined the Army and served three deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over seven years. Saw unit mates shredded by IEDs. Made leadership decisions that were life or death. Heard the explosion that killed one of his best friends nearby. Signed off on being responsible for a million dollars’ worth of government equipment. Engaged in rifle fire with the enemy while trying to re- open a rural elementary school. Awarded a Purple Heart when his vehicle was blown up and his concussion was so bad he didn’t know where—or who—he was for days.

From top to bottom: Kevin Burke on foot patrol in Afghanistan. Burke giving an Afghan child a pen on a patrol. Burke receiving his acceptance letter to Notre Dame. Burke greeting his wife after returning from Afghanistan in 2013.From top to bottom: Kevin Burke on foot patrol in Afghanistan. Burke giving an Afghan child a pen on a patrol. Burke receiving his acceptance letter to Notre Dame. Burke greeting his wife after returning from Afghanistan in 2013.

But Burke still dreamed of going to Notre Dame, something that had not been an option when he lost interest in college before. He went to Holy Cross College across the street and was rejected again a year later. He persisted with the discipline and resiliency he’d learned in the military.

It’s hard not to call Burke a “military Rudy” when he was finally accepted on his last try in May 2015. His reaction: “It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

And Burke too had his shining moment on the football field – where he was honored for his military service during the game against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 30, 2017. He will graduate in December.

Burke is just one of the of the nearly two million veterans currently using the 2008 post-9/11 GI bill to go back to college as older, non-traditional students. Very few of them will go to elite schools. But a new initiative led by another veteran, Regan Jones, aims to ratchet up the recruitment of veterans to Notre Dame, where they offer a unique perspective at a university with aspirations for a diverse student body and with a long history of military service.

Why? Burke gives this example: “In one class, we were talking about the conflict in Syria. I was able to provide an insight that revealed I had served in the Middle East. There was an audible gasp in the class, and the professor was kind of stunned. You’re able to provide viewpoint that’s a benefit to everyone in the class because they’re learning a different perspective than what’s taught in a book. You can compare the literature to a real-life experience.”

Jones, director of the Military and Veterans Initiative that launched in September, said veterans not only bring diversity of thought and first-hand experience into the classroom, but also self-discipline and a dedication to teamwork that can make them excellent students. He saw it last summer when Notre Dame became the 15th university to participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project, which started with nine veterans nationwide in 2009 and grew to 224 veterans in 2016.

The program is a week-long preparation for the transition from the battlefield to the classroom, designed to give veterans the training and confidence that they can succeed in an academic environment. “These were mostly first-generation college students, worried about what to do next, but they left here thinking, ‘I can do this,’” Jones said. “I heard from the professors too. They were nervous about how the veterans were different. Their feedback was, ‘We love these students and want more of them.’”

Kevin Burke honored for his military service during the game against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 30, 2017.

But challenges remain. Veterans are older, sometimes married, and have different living needs. They may feel alienated or isolated from their younger peers. Some are dealing with physical or psychological wounds that have led to high suicide rates among veterans. Few were top students coming out of high school, and it’s difficult to evaluate what they’ve learned or forgotten during the intervening years. Most top colleges can count the number of undergraduate veterans with fingers. Notre Dame has just three.

Jones understands these obstacles. He volunteered for the Marines after college, inspired by the 9/11 attacks his senior year. He was deployed in Iraq near Ramadi, where he was hit by IED’s twice and received a Purple Heart for gunshot wounds in the shoulder. After his third deployment and second child, he applied for a ROTC leadership position at Notre Dame, which he said is considered the best in the country. He taught military history and theory, and found the same sense of community he’d always found on military bases.

Left: Regan Jones. Center: Jones with Secretary Mattis when he was recovering in post-op after his gunshot wound in Iraq. Right: Jones resting after assaulting enemy building.
Left: Regan Jones. Center: Jones with Secretary Mattis when he was recovering in post-op after his gunshot wound in Iraq. Right: Jones resting after assaulting enemy building.

After helping the provost’s office with a military-related project, he retired from the Marines in January. At that time, University leadership and faculty were discussing how Notre Dame could become "best in class" in military issues by bringing existing programs for veteran undergraduate and graduate students together and starting new ones. This launched a steering committee that worked for nine months, culminating in a new Military and Veterans Office to coordinate a wide range of efforts that Jones will direct.

“The committee was motivated by Notre Dame’s history, by the 3.6 million people who have served since 9/11 and by the challenge of how we can do more,” Jones said. “If the student body should reflect the general population, then that’s .6 percent, or about 10 to 12 a year. There’s room to improve.”

What complicates the goal is that each veteran’s winding path to college is different. Tim Hopkins, a senior political science major, joined the 75th Ranger Regiment out of high school. Like Burke, he said he could not have gotten into Notre Dame then because he wasn’t committed. He was like plenty of high school students with talent but poor time management.

“If it wasn’t for the military, the things I learned there and the traits I established there, I wouldn’t be here,” Hopkins said. “I came from a distinct unit that expected excellence and you to be your very best every single day. After I got out, I felt I was representing that organization and it would be a disservice to them and myself if I didn’t try to give everything I had and come to a university like Notre Dame.”

Tim Hopkins with gun.
Tim Hopkins

Hopkins said the transition has not been difficult for him because Notre Dame is a military- friendly campus. He said there are a lot of similarities between the two, such as high standards, discipline, a commitment to excellence and selflessness. While he initially thought he’d never return and instead go into federal law enforcement, he now plans to re-enlist with his degree.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “There’s still so much to be done, and I think I have more to give.”

For others, money can be the key factor in joining the military. Seung-Jae (David) Oh started at Notre Dame but realized he was running out of money in 2009. He couldn’t get a government loan because his parents had moved from South Korea when he was in high school, so he was technically an international student. Just in time, he learned that the U.S. military was recruiting foreign students as interpreters and cultural advisers. The program offered citizenship and G.I. benefits that could pay his tuition. His path through Notre Dame took eight years.

“Those four years (in the military) were an education of a different kind,” he said before graduating last year.

The G.I. bill provides about $25,000 for tuition and a similar amount for housing and living expenses. Notre Dame participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, so it provides $16,000 for each veteran, which is then matched by the Veterans Administration. As a result, finances are not a main barrier for veterans, though financial challenges remain and benefaction will be necessary for fellowships and other priority areas.

Charlotte Pekoske is one of 46 veterans currently enrolled in the graduate program in the Mendoza College of Business, which has aggressively recruited veterans for years and made them around 10 percent of the student population. That kind of critical mass helps create a robust support system, such as an active MBA Veterans Club that holds events from happy hours to community service projects.

Charlotte Pekoske
Charlotte Pekoske

“We help each other out, even with things like how to dress – I wore nothing but a uniform for years,” she said. “We have to learn how to interview without speaking in jargon or acronyms.”

Pekoske grew up in Michigan and said her family has a military history. The Coast Guard Academy offered a way to pay for college and she was hooked by the close connections she built during a week-long summer program, despite all the yelling. She graduated in 2009 and served for eight years with tours out of Portsmouth, Va., and Key West, Fla.

She’s now in the Coast Guard Reserves and said she and her husband, who is in the law school, are fortunate to study for professional degrees without incurring debt. Her experiences planning large operations to enforce drug smuggling and immigration law prepared her for problem solving in school and for a career in marketing and corporate strategy.

“Going to the military was the best decision of my life. Business school can feel stressful, but I have some perspective. It’s not life or death.”

Regan Jones, the new initiative’s leader, said the MBA program’s success with veterans has taken years to build. But he has bold plans. They include increased recruiting on military bases, interactive events with faculty and fundraising runs to help homeless veterans. Down the road, Jones hopes to secure an endowment to support the financial aid of an increased number of veterans.

There are successful models to emulate. In 2013 Vassar College partnered with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit with a track record of helping under-represented students access elite schools, to recruit and prepare about a dozen veterans a year. The month-long seminar works like the Warrior-Scholar Project and provides support through camaraderie. Other schools have jumped on board, and Notre Dame could as well. Similar programs like Service to School prove that qualified veterans are out there looking for opportunities. Cornell University recently committed to enrolling 100 undergraduate veterans. The gold standard lately has been Colombia University with around 400 veterans in its School of General Studies.

Other schools have faced roadblocks. A veteran at Stanford publicly criticized the school for applying part of his housing stipend to tuition, counting it in his financial aid package and lowering the subsidy from the school. Stanford changed its policy to let veterans keep any excess housing funds. Too many veterans use their GI benefits at for-profit colleges with poor results. Imagine instead what effect veterans could have at top schools, where the country’s future leaders will make important decisions on issues like veteran health care and going to war.

Burke, 29, said he appreciates the interaction with his younger classmates. At first, he joked that he felt like the movie character Billy Madison, who went back to grade school as an adult. Burke was self-conscious and didn’t tell people about his military service. How could they relate to his story about his squad patrol being hit by an IED, about carrying the wounded to a helicopter, about applying a tourniquet that still couldn’t save a life?

Over time, Burke said he became more comfortable. Despite living off campus with his wife, he got involved in University activities like political clubs and interhall football. He began to speak up in class because his perspective added another dimension, and he plans to use his degree to go into sports marketing. He hopes that more veterans can follow in his path. The key to making that happen, he said, will be getting the word out that there is an appreciation of what veterans offer.

“Statistically, people that have the GPAs that would get you into a place like this don’t necessarily join the Army right away; they have other options,” Burke said. “One problem is the standards are meant for people coming out of high school. Let veterans know that you’ll take everything into consideration. You’re not a normal applicant. You’ve got totally different things that you’re bringing to the table than the high school student who’s got a perfect GPA and test scores. There needs to be a way to assign some kind of value to what veterans bring.”

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