While 21 percent of college students attend high-graduation rate colleges or universities like Wesleyan, only 10 percent of veterans do so, according to a 2019 report by research group Ithaka S+R. The Posse Foundation, in conjunction with the University of Chicago, Vassar College, the University of Virginia, and Wesleyan University, aims to boost those numbers.
Since its foundation in 1989, the organization has sought to increase accessibility to higher education, particularly for demographics that often end up slipping through the cracks of elite college admissions. Veterans are one of those groups—alongside first generation, low income, and racial minorities—who can apply or be nominated for the program, which is a year-long application process. If selected, finalists attend pre-collegiate training in New York, which builds on the leadership abilities of scholars and prepares students academically, socially, and culturally prior to matriculation.
In the fall of 2014, when it admitted 10 former veterans, Wesleyan became the second liberal arts college to partner with the Posse Foundation’s veteran program. In the six years since, Wesleyan has continued accepting Posse applicants. The University aims to have up to 40 Posse Foundation scholars enrolled at any one time, establishing a diverse community of veterans who have grown to be an integral part of the Wesleyan student body.
After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense Specialist for four years, Zack Thong ’22 studied at a community college in Pasadena, Calif., before learning about the Posse program. Though he initially dismissed the opportunity to apply, he reconsidered and was accepted in the program’s next semester of recruitment.
“I feel that Posse gave me a great opportunity to expand my network,” Thong said. “I never thought I would come to school out here.”
Dani Rodriguez ’20 said he dedicated over a decade to serving the nation in the Marine Corps before leaving the military in 2014 in an effort to pursue his acting and filmmaking ambitions.
Rodriguez is now making that dream a reality; he’s writing a T.V. comedy senior thesis, drawing on his experiences at Wesleyan. But Rodriguez is also a father, which makes him a little different than the traditional college student.
“When you bring vets on campus, you are also bringing real-world problems or responsibilities on to campus,” Rodriguez said.
Professor of Classical Studies Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, one of several mentors who became involved with Posse when it began in 2014, also noted that the challenges that Posse members face differ from those of traditional students. Szegedy-Maszak said he meets with an entire group of Posse scholars each week and on an individual basis every other week.
“We try to look out for them, because they have different sets of needs and challenges than the traditional undergrads,” Szegedy-Maszak said. “Some of them have families or domestic partners, so all of these things mean that they require a kind of attention.”
This aspect of consistent support is a crucial component of the Posse program. Gabriel Snashall ’21, a Posse member and International Relations major, spoke to the importance of the advising system.
“The one thing that really bridges the gap [between traditional and non-traditional students] is the Posse student advisors,” Snashall said. “I would say that they are the cornerstone to veterans’ success.”
Other important institutional support includes academic advisors, check-ins with class deans, meetings with financial aid officers, appointments with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) professionals, as well as an open dialogue between Wesleyan administration and the Posse scholars.
Despite the success of advising within the Posse program, gaps between Posse members and traditional students continue to pose a challenge to the former group, specifically in their interactions with the administration.
“Myself, I have a 13-year-old daughter,” Rodriguez said. “They put me in a house, and I needed a three-bedroom but I only had two bedrooms, so I was sleeping on the couch for the first semester…. The campus is kind of built for 18 year olds, so sometimes there is a gap between the Posse program and the institution.”
Even as they work through some logistical issues, within a community that fosters inclusivity, inquiry, and integration, many veterans said they have been able to forge connections with their Wesleyan peers and enrich discussions and campus culture with their presence.
Many Posse members had different experiences in the military, serving for different lengths of time, in different branches and in different capacities. This diversity of experiences, as well as the skills, interests, and passions that Posse members bring to the table, allows them to contribute to the Wesleyan community in a variety of ways. Szegedy-Maszak pointed to the multi-dimensionality of veterans and its impact on campus life.
“Fairly quickly, their veteran status becomes not the most interesting thing about them,” Szsegedy-Maszak said. “They’re just really interesting non-traditional students. In a way, the veteran status is just a sorting device.”
Many Posse veterans are active in Wesleyan extracurriculars. Thong, for example, participates in the a cappella scene on campus, connecting with other students through performing. Other veterans have taken on roles within student councils. With the help of his Posse cohort, Rodriguez created the first Student Veteran Organization at Wesleyan. The group stages panels and collaborative events such as paintball for veterans, as well as the wider student body.
The diversity of thought that the Posse program represents is also reflected in discussion in and outside of the classroom. Many veterans offer a new voice, a new perspective, and have a new story to tell that has been shaped by their experiences serving in the armed forces. Rodriguez said that his personal connections to political and social debates allow him to add to active conversations on campus with a perspective that traditional students might not have come across before.
“Wes does a really good job at recruiting students who are willing to have difficult conversations,” Rodriguez said. “We bring the nuance to any kind of conversation.”
That being said, someone has to start these dialogues, a task which some veterans said they have found often falls on them. Bobby Contreras Jr. ’23 is a Posse scholar who served globally in the United States Army as a member of the bomb squad.
“I found out that I have to do the reaching,” Contreras Jr. said. “I don’t know if it’s intimidation, but students seem to hesitate to talk to me.”
However, Contreras Jr. pointed out that among the veteran community there is a willingness to share their stories and help others understand where they are coming from.
“A lot of people just read things from the news and they have never actually met someone who has been through this,” Contreras Jr. said. “Whenever you humanize it for someone, I think people understand it more instead of just reading an article online or on social media.”
Currently, the Posse program operates at only four colleges and universities across the United States. Many veterans agreed that they hope the initiative can expand.
“I wouldn’t be as prepared and in a place to successfully transition to do research in grad school or get out and successfully transition into a job if it wasn’t for Posse,” Shashall said.
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