The Only Veteran in the Room

By Hannah Natanson, Crimson Staff Writer
By Lauren A. Sierra

UPDATED: September 24, 2016, at 9:19 a.m.

Many Harvard students have spent sleepless nights in the library, hunched over problem sets or essays, running on coffee fumes. Few, however, have sat guard for up to 48 consecutive hours in the burning heat and freezing cold, as Giora A. Ashkenazi ’17 did while serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Ashkenazi fulfilled his three-year mandatory service in the IDF before coming to Harvard. During his six-month preparatory training, he lived by his watch, traveling all day from one hour-long activity to another. If he arrived late, he had to run or do pushups as punishment.

Once training ended, Ashkenazi entered active duty, and his days became even harder. He was kept on a strict schedule, alternating endlessly between work and supposed “rest” periods. Due to personnel shortages, Ashkenazi often had to forego sleep to complete menial tasks, like washing dishes or cleaning, during his rest shifts. On some nights, he was able to sleep for only four hours.

Other nights, Ashkenazi sat guard duty in the desert. He’d pack up his weapons and ammunition, some food, warm clothes, and a small blanket, and travel to an assigned location. There, he’d sit for hours on end and “just stare,” alternately sweating and shivering as day changed to night and back again.

A photo of Giora A. Ashkenazi ’17, taken while he was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces
A photo of Giora A. Ashkenazi ’17, taken while he was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces By Courtesy of Giora A. Ashkenazi

Ashkenazi notes that these experiences have given him an “interesting perspective” on having to occasionally stay up late to complete a problem set.

Student veterans like Ashkenazi often arrive at Harvard older, more mature, and with a broader perspective on life than their peers. But with these students’ expanded outlooks comes the difficulty of fitting in among classmates whose experiences differ vastly from their own, in an environment that often does not feel like it was designed with them in mind.

Though Harvard boasts student-run organizations for undergraduate, graduate, and alumni veterans, the University does not currently run any programs aimed at recruiting student veterans to campus, or at easing their transition once they arrive.

Left to navigate a radical life change mostly on their own, Harvard student veterans express a desire for more outreach and support.

The 'Shoulds'

Ashkenazi, who was 24 when he arrived in Cambridge, had no idea what to expect from his first year at Harvard. So, he watched “The Social Network.”

Having spent the last five years serving in the IDF, working in Israel, and volunteering in Nepal, Ashkenazi had no frame of reference for college other than the cinema.

“I remember watching [movies] before I came here and thinking, ‘Oh, okay,’” he says. He pledged to “try to keep an open mind to freshman culture”—as he hoped his classmates would to him.

Ashkenazi soon discovered that Harvard students and Harvard student veterans tend to have distinct worldviews, drawn from their different life experiences. As fellow IDF veteran Limor P. Gultchin ’17 puts it, “I think that there is a direct correlation between the thing you did before coming here and your experience here and expectations here.”

Ashkenazi knew he was different from most freshmen. He began his military service in Israel at age 19. Afterwards, he spent time in a kibbutz, worked as a waiter, and traveled to Kathmandu, where he worked with two Nepali to establish a kindergarten.

Giora A. Ashkenazi with his dog tag from his time serving in the Israeli military.
Giora A. Ashkenazi with his dog tag from his time serving in the Israeli military. By Lauren A. Sierra

“When I came [to Harvard] I decided to very knowingly immerse myself,” Ashkenazi explains. “I tried to be patient and open with people, and I found people to be very curious and genuine.

“It’s not that I didn’t have moments like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here, why-are-they-shit-faced-and-it’s-3-a.m.-and-I’m-trying-to-sleep’ kind of moments,” he adds.

“But overall I found it to be a positive experience, though there were things that I knew people wouldn’t understand.”

Ashkenazi says his time in the military gave him more perspective, allowing him “a way to kind of zoom out” and see things in a different light. For example, he’s never had complaints about the food at Harvard.

“[Harvard is set up to] make us focus on studying, like, ‘Just study, we’ll do the rest for you,’ [which is] a huge, huge privilege,” Ashkenazi says. “I’m always in awe of people making food for us, and the food is so good, and I never have to cut a vegetable or wash a dish, and I washed plenty in the army.”

In particular, Ashkenazi, a joint concentrator in social studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality, says he doesn’t understand why so many Harvard students pursue careers in investment consulting. He thinks the reason may be a pervasive herd mentality, which he finds distasteful after his time in the army.

“There was a Bain [Capital] event yesterday, I had no will of even looking at it,” Ashkenazi says. “I don’t get the ‘shoulds,’ like, ‘you should do this.’ Somewhere along the line, maybe because of the group aspect in the noncombat part [of my service], I’ve become more wary of groups.”

South Korean veteran Jae Hyun Lee ’18 also says the Harvard culture surrounding consulting and finance can be alienating. He says his previous experiences as a student veteran can make recruiting events for financial companies seem off-putting.

“[At] these info sessions for these finance or consulting firms...everybody [is going] for money,” he says. “I feel like that can really turn people off, especially if you’re from the military, [because] it does beg the question, ‘Is this who I was fighting for? Is this the company I was supposed to protect with my life?”

Just One Vet

Logan E. Leslie ’16 says many college-eligible veterans may feel discouraged from applying to Harvard in the first place. Leslie, who completed eight years of service in Iraq, Qatar, and Afghanistan with the United States Army Special Forces prior to attending Harvard College, says many veterans he knows wouldn’t think of applying to Harvard because they view the student body as “intolerant” and the tuition as “exorbitant.” Some also fear they would not be competitive applicants.

Marlyn McGrath, the Director of Admissions for Harvard College, wrote in an email that the “College seeks to create a diverse campus community” and noted that the admissions office speaks regularly with Reserve Officers’ Training Corps leaders and the Marine Leadership Scholars Programs, among other “veteran-focused organizations.”

Still, Leslie, 30, feels like veterans considering applying to Harvard aren’t getting the message. “You ask the average veteran, and they have an image in their head of the Harvard student [as] just kind of closed-minded [and] politically intolerant,” Leslie says. “That’s how it’s viewed.”

Leslie, who is now pursuing a joint degree from the Law School and the Business School, says that he feels there is some truth to this perception.

“It’s different [for a veteran] because people might look at you differently, they might ask you questions about your background in a different kind of way,” he says. “But most people here have pretty interesting backgrounds.”

It helped that Leslie, who lived off-campus in an apartment with his wife and two daughters while he attended the College, was able to “get out of the bubble every day and go to my family and have a life.” He and his family often left Cambridge for activities like apple picking.

Logan E. Leslie, now a Harvard Business School and Kennedy School student, served in the United States Army Special Forces for eight years before matriculating at the College.
Logan E. Leslie, now a Harvard Business School and Kennedy School student, served in the United States Army Special Forces for eight years before matriculating at the College. By Lauren A. Sierra

But Leslie wishes that he had had more peers at the College who could relate to his experiences. “Since I’ve been here I have known personally all the vets that have come through the College,” he says. “I think it’s embarrassing that out of 6,700 students, you have two vets or one vet or three vets.”

Jason M. Halligan, who graduated from West Point and served in the military on active duty for nine years before enrolling in the joint degree program offered by HLS and the Kennedy School, says the “communication gap” between civilian students and veterans on campus may contribute to veterans’ perception of Harvard students as insensitive to their experiences.

“A lot of students are afraid to ask veterans about their experience, [and] I think it’s primarily out of good will, that students don’t want to offend veterans,” he says. “But I think also veterans don’t want to share our story sometimes, because we don’t want to offend others… There’s just a lot of good-natured uncomfortableness.”

Halligan, one of four co-directors of the Harvard Veterans’ Organization, the on-campus, student-run branch of the Harvard Veterans’ Alumni Organization, says the HVO hopes to develop a forum where veterans feel comfortable sharing their stories and students feel comfortable asking about them.

But first, more veterans would need to come to Cambridge. Leslie and Halligan emphasize that the lack of student veterans at the College is detrimental both to the institution and to its students.

“Since 2001, so [for] the majority of most of the students’ lifetimes, this country has been at war,” Leslie says. “And most of the students I’ve interacted with here haven’t even talked to just one vet. That’s huge.

“These wars have defined the course of this country,” he adds. “If the Harvard student body, which is supposedly the top, supposedly the future’s leaders, haven’t had personal interactions...with veterans, then I think that’s really bad.”

On Their Own

Even veterans undeterred by the prospect of potential friction with Harvard’s undergraduate student body may balk at the College’s steep tuition. Currently, Harvard charges more than $60,000 a year: a daunting price for older students who may support themselves financially.

While in the U.S. army, Eli B. Schmerler ’19 worked in cartography as a geospatial engineer, performing terrain analysis. He found this kind of analysis so interesting, he says, that he signed up to work in Harvard College Library’s map collection his freshman year.

Schmerler’s full-time work in the military also made him financially independent from his parents. Yet, when he matriculated at the College, Harvard considered him a dependent of his parents for the purposes of need-based financial aid analysis.

“Many veterans come out of the military with a strong sense of independence from their family,” he says. “For me, this is the case of, I do not want my parents to be involved in my paying for school.

“The fact that [Harvard] considers you as a dependent of your parents even though you’ve been not claimed on their taxes for the last however many years you were in the military, that’s not a good thing,” he adds.

Speaking on behalf of the Financial Aid Office, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in an email that “Harvard’s approach to providing financial aid is based on a student’s ability to pay for college, not their willingness,” adding that, in this context, financial assessment of a student “typically” includes his or her parents. She noted that “every situation is unique,” but there is “no standard reason” a student would be declared independent from one or both parents.

According to its website, the Harvard Financial Aid Office bases its allocation of aid entirely on need, and asks students receiving financial aid to contribute to the cost of their education through term-time and summer employment. Currently, roughly 70 percent of College students receive some form of aid, while 20 percent pay no tuition.

Daniel T. Fisher, who received a joint degree from HBS and HKS this year and previously served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, says his biggest financial aid concern centers on Harvard’s relatively small commitment to the Yellow Ribbon Program, a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that allows private universities to grant tuition benefits to veterans. Those grants are then matched by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

According to Fisher, the tuition for any veteran attending Harvard would likely be fully covered by a combination of the broader Post-9/11 GI Bill (which funds veterans attending private colleges at the rate of approximately $20,000 a year), the Yellow Ribbon Program, and Harvard’s own need-based aid. Unfortunately, he says, few veterans are aware of this.

“The Yellow Ribbon Program commitment is a key component of the financial aid package because it is a signalling mechanism specifically to the veteran community,” Fisher says. “Those folks, that population is less likely to understand that Harvard has such a generous financial aid program.”

Harvard currently promises $5,000 per student veteran per year through the Yellow Ribbon Program, according to the VA website. Many veterans, seeing this, think they won’t be able to afford tuition and choose not to apply, Fisher says.

Cowenhoven wrote that Harvard’s contribution to the Yellow Ribbon Program was chosen to “reflect the amount students on financial aid are asked to work during both the summer and term-time.” She adds that it is possible this amount may change in the future.

In comparison, Yale commits $10,000 per year per student veteran to Yellow Ribbon. Yale is currently home to 10 undergraduate U.S. student veterans, compared to Harvard’s three.

Harvard’s financial policies, along with the lack of other veterans on campus, can make the College feel unwelcoming to student veterans like Schmerler.

“[It can feel like] Harvard has this idea of who the people at Harvard are supposed to be,” he says, “18 to 22, live in the dorm, do activities, and they try and make everybody fit that mold.”

Overwhelmed

For those veterans who do manage to navigate the admissions and financial aid process, the next step—adjusting to life on campus—is often no less challenging.

Jae Hyun Lee experienced this difficult transition when he returned to campus after taking what would have been his sophomore and junior years to complete his required 21 months of service in the South Korean army.

Jae Hyun Lee left after his freshman year at Harvard to serve in the South Korean military.
Jae Hyun Lee left after his freshman year at Harvard to serve in the South Korean military. By Lauren A. Sierra

Lee came back to campus an academic sophomore but a social senior. He was immediately confronted with pressing academic decisions and social anxieties. The friends he’d made as a freshman would be graduating in less than a year, and Lee knew no one in the class of 2018. Despite having been away from his studies for nearly two years, he was expected to declare his academic concentration that semester.

Apart from general social and academic worries, Lee says he was shocked and stressed by the sudden segue from military rigor to collegiate freedom. Like Ashkenazi, Lee says his military service was strictly regimented and physically taxing. He remembers standing on night duty for hours, staring at the stars.

At other times, Lee and his fellow soldiers would go on 30-kilometer marches, carrying 25 to 30 kilograms of weight on their backs. They’d start out singing songs and shouting catchphrases, he says, but would lapse into an exhausted silence as time went on. Lee recalls being so tired he’d run out of things to think about.

Jae Hyun Lee left after his freshman year at Harvard to serve in the South Korean military.
Jae Hyun Lee left after his freshman year at Harvard to serve in the South Korean military. By Courtesy of Jae Hyun Lee

“In the military, it’s a very fixed schedule,” Lee says, describing a typical day in which he rose at 6:30 a.m., worked until 5:30 p.m., ate dinner, helped clean, did a roll call, and went to bed at 10 p.m. “But here at Harvard, your options are infinite. You can do so much, it’s really what you make of it.”

Lee likens the experience of switching between military and college life to the experience of switching from a salad bar with only a few options to a five-star hotel kitchen where he was the head chef and could do as he pleased.

Now 22 and in his junior year at Harvard, Lee has survived this switch with aplomb. In addition to a heavy academic load—Lee is concentrating in economics with a secondary in environmental science and public policy—he helps direct YouthGlobe, a student-run, not-for-profit organization that provides scholarships to orphans in Burundi.

But Lee recalls feeling overwhelmed by the transition at the time. He says he found no help from the administration, which offers no formal programs to ease the transition for undergraduate veterans, according to College spokesperson Rachael Dane.

Harvard University Health Services offers no special counseling for student veterans, according to Chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services Barbara Lewis. Lewis wrote in an email that CAMHS can “refer students to outside providers,” and noted that there are a number of programs in “the greater Boston area designed specifically to help with concerns ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to readjustment.”

“I’m not trying to straight-out criticize Harvard, but I haven’t received a single email or anything like that,” Lee says. “I think what you really need is a one-on-one session with someone who understands what you went through.”

Dane wrote in an email to The Crimson that “Harvard College welcomes the opportunity to connect with undergraduate veterans, as we know they may have needs that are different from other students.” She added that the College “encourages students to bring their ideas to us.”

Joon H. Yang, a South Korean student who left Harvard after his sophomore year to serve his military duty and will return next year as a member of the Class of 2019, agreed with Lee.

“From what I have seen and what I hear from fellow Koreans or Israeli friends who return to school after military service, I don’t feel like there is enough—or quite frankly, any—system in place to ease the transition,” Yang, age 22, wrote in an email.

“I get it, we don’t need to be babied. But I’ve seen friends who struggle to get back into the rhythm of things after two or three years away from Harvard’s very unique ecosystem, and there wasn’t any support that was geared towards these students, who could have used the help.”

Lee says he thinks the situation could be fixed if Harvard hired a few advisers who specialize in helping students with military experience. Even receiving one brief email from someone with a similar service background would have made an immense difference, he says.

“Harvard always asks students to be proactive,” he says, “but sometimes I think Harvard needs to make an effort to reach out to those students. Send emails, ask people… It doesn’t cost anything extra.”

Going Beyond

Limor Gultchin, age 24, did not have what most might think of as a typical military experience. Rather than patrolling ambush sites or performing guard duty, she spent her three years in the IDF working for the Army Radio as a journalist.

Gultchin began as a reporter in the field, often filing stories from borrowed computers (she lacked one of her own). By her second year, she had worked her way up to news editor, and by her third, she was designing and hosting her own radio programs.

One of the things Gultchin liked most about her service, she says, was the intense camaraderie and all-consuming nature of her work. She remembers late, late nights and impossible deadlines.

Limor P. Gultchin spent three years in the IDF working for the Army Radio as a journalist.
Limor P. Gultchin spent three years in the IDF working for the Army Radio as a journalist. By Lauren A. Sierra

“The nature of my service was very much, ‘go out there in the field and gather all the information and have it back in time for this and that, or it’s not going to make it for the edition and your editor is going to shout at you,’” she says.

She also remembers how willing she and her fellow soldiers were to “go well beyond their resources and limits and the limits of what is reasonable” as they worked together toward a common goal.

One of the reasons she chose to concentrate in computer science, she says, was that its collaborative environment—with students joining forces to complete problem sets or hunching over the same line of code for hours on end—resembles the ethos of “shared work” she found in IDF.

“In many cases in the Israeli military… people end up caring so much for their friends and caring so much for the type of work that they do [that] you’re willing to do so much more,” she says. “You’re willing to not sleep, you’re willing to go out there and just get what you need.”

Limor P. Gultchin with a postcard sent to her by friends from the radio program she worked for while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Limor P. Gultchin with a postcard sent to her by friends from the radio program she worked for while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. By Lauren A. Sierra

Gultchin says she came to Harvard expecting to find a lot of the same intensity—except that, in Cambridge, it would be students throwing themselves into collaborative academic work, not soldiers losing themselves in military service.

She did find people who were “very intense,” but their intensity belonged to a “different realm,” she says.

“There is a similar mentality when it comes to pulling all-nighters and going to this recruiting event, then coming back and going to the club meeting, and only then starting my problem set due the next day,” she says.

“But I think it’s for a much more individualistic sense of it, because it’s all about building yourself and your resume and your path here, and you are stepping out of your comfort zone to achieve something for yourself.

“The kind of going beyond that I’m talking about is more because you’re committed to [each other and] your work, which is not so common here,” she adds.

Another thing far from common at Harvard—student veterans.

“I’m not gonna ever be the veteran... in a 60-person or a 700-person lecture who’s like, ‘based on my veteran experience, speaking as the only veteran in this room, let me tell you all about something that none of you really care about,’” Schmerler says. “At least that’s the perception that I have.”

Schmerler instead sits silent, the only veteran in the room.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: September 24, 2016

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the concentration and secondary field of Jae Hyun Lee ’18.

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