For Veterans Day, Portraits of Service

Twelve student veterans share their stories and their goals for the future.
photo: closeup of American flag patch on shoulder of a military uniform

With the United States on the brink of entering World War I in 1917, NYU Chancellor Elmer Ellmsworth Brown wrote to President Woodrow Wilson about “the readiness and desire of this institution to render all possible aid to the government.” During World War II, NYU was one of the first universities chosen by the U.S. Army to train soldiers in meteorology and engineering. And in 1945, after the passage of the G.I. Bill, NYU enrolled more student-veterans than any college in the nation.

Inspired by that proud history of patriotic duty, NYU has recently renewed its commitments to the 300 student veterans currently enrolled—and to making an education here accessible to more and more who have served. Because G.I. Bill funds don’t sufficiently cover the full cost of tuition, NYU announced in May a new effort to close the gap for undergrads by nearly tripling—from $3,500 to $10,000—our contributions to the Yellow Ribbon grants offered by universities and matched by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several graduate schools, including Gallatin, Wagner, SPS, and Stern also increased their Yellow Ribbon funding, following the School of Law, which had previously boosted its contribution to $20,000 per student. And recognizing the demand for more social workers well-versed in veterans issues, the Silver School announced last November a new effort to recruit and mentor veterans with the support of the Schultz Foundation.  

These are incremental steps; it will take more to eliminate all of the challenges student veterans face not only in terms of cost, but also in navigating the complexities of a large university. Many have organized veterans groups in individual NYU schools or sought community in the University-wide NYU Military Alliance, which recently partnered with the Student Resource Center to match newly enrolling veterans with current student-veterans who can act as mentors.

This year, NYU will mark Veterans Day by dedicating a plaque on Schwartz Plaza to all those in our community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—who served in the armed forces. In advance of that commemoration, NYU News spoke with 12 current student veterans and active duty service members—representing all branches of the armed forces—about their military service, their experiences at NYU, and their goals for the future. Together, they are as diverse as NYU itself—some joined the military right out of high school, others after college, and still others as the start of a second career. They were infantry officers, cryptologists, and medics; they served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan and on bases, ships, and submarines around the globe. Now they're studying to be lawyers, nurses, social workers, business leaders, and historians—all with new missions to pursue and new life chapters to write. 

We thank them for their service, and invite you to browse their stories below.


photo: Olu Baker

Olu Baker

photo: Andrew Epstein

Andrew Epstein

photo: Sohnhwa Lee

Sohnhwa Lee

photo: Alveen Bregaudit

Alveen Bregaudit

photo: Juneisy Hawkins

Juneisy Hawkins

photo: Alexander Marte

Alexander Marte

photo: Porsha Bryant

Porsha Bryant

photo: Erik Herron

Erik Herron

Samantha Sarkis

Samantha Sarkis

photo: Bryan Coughlin

Bryan Coughlin

photo: Jason Joven

Jason Joven

photo: Rishi Soneja

Rishi Soneja

I had issues ruminating in my mind. the only way to get them out was to start writing, to start making films.
Olu Baker (Tisch '18), U.S. Army 2005-2013

photo: Olu Baker

In 2005, when Olu Baker was working as an accountant, he couldn’t get the news from Iraq and Afghanistan out of his head: “What I was seeing was so bad—people were dying and there was a need for soldiers to serve our country,” Baker recalls. “For whatever reason, I just felt like I had to do it—it was like God was telling me.”

Baker joined the Army in 2005 and would serve for seven and a half years as an officer in logistics and finance before retiring due to injuries he sustained as a convoy commander in Afghanistan. He took a job with the Department of Defense, but it didn’t feel quite right right: Baker needed a creative outlet. In the military, he’d tried standup comedy to blow off steam, and even back when he was studying finance at Morehouse College in his native Atlanta, he dreamed of being an actor, and got a minor in theater. Upon return to civilian life, he remembered something a college mentor once told him: Life experience makes you a better artist.

That advice suddenly made sense. “I had experiences that I wanted to talk about,” Baker recalls. “I had issues, things ruminating in my mind that I couldn’t get out.” He started writing, bought a camera, and tried his hand at filmmaking.

Before long, a friend suggested that he meet fellow Morehouse College grad Spike Lee (Tisch ’82), who ultimately encouraged him to apply to Tisch. Now the father of three is in his second year of the graduate film program where he’s working on a film inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about a college student who gets killed by police in front of his own house. One day, he says, he hopes to make a film about the experiences of women in the military, inspired in part by a female friend he served alongside in Afghanistan.

“Picking up a camera is intimidating, light is intimidating, sound is intimidating,” Baker reflects, “but in the military we knew we had to train for whatever we were doing. It’s the same with studying and preparation before I go out on a shoot. The military taught me not to be afraid to learn something new.”


I wanted to get my life back on track. The Army kind of straightened me out.
Alveen Bregaudit (Silver '17), U.S. Army 2011-2015
photo: Alveen Brgaudit

As a U.S. Army healthcare specialist deployed to Afghanistan in 2012–2013, Alveen Bregaudit was tasked with addressing the unique mental and physical health needs of U.S. soldiers and the allied forces serving alongside them.

Now, as a master's student in the Silver School of Social Work, he's learning to care for a very different population: geriatrics. Through an internship at NYU Langone's Pearl I. Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation & Treatment, he's been working with adults with Alzheimer's and plans to enter the field of geriatric care management. "Social work is part advocacy—it's about advocating for the rights of someone else, for something that may not benefit you," he says.

Inspired by two cousins who were U.S. Marines, Bregaudit, a native of Syracuse, New York, joined the military after dropping out of college and credits his experience in the Army with changing the course of his life. "I wanted to get myself back on track," he recalls. "I wanted to figure things out, and while I was in the military I actually finished my bachelor's—they kind of straightened me out." During his deployment, he also relished the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world, including soldiers from Germany and Iraq that he met serving in Afghanistan.

But it's going back to school that Bregaudit now counts as his greatest accomplishment. "Once you drop out, you find reasons not to go back," he says. "But now I have my bachelor's and am just a little more than one semester away from my master's. Maybe I'll even be a professor one day."


Nothing can really scare me, even if I'm alone. I know I can handle pretty much anything that gets thrown my way.
Porsha Bryant (Nursing '18), U.S. Air Force 2005-2013
photo: Olu Baker

Working on life support in the U.S. Air Force for a fleet of fighter jets meant that Porsha Bryant was responsible for “keeping pilots alive,” she notes. “We worked with their flight gear, so we packed parachutes and fixed oxygen masks and G-suits, and if they ever had to eject, we were the ones who packed all of that equipment too.”

After her eight years of military service based in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, Bryant began a career on another kind of aircraft, working as a gate agent for Southwest Airlines out of Denver before becoming a flight attendant for JetBlue. She loved the opportunity to travel, but missed the feeling that she was truly helping people. “Customer service—bringing people Cokes—is a whole different ballgame,” she reflects. “When I was in the military, I always thought it was pretty cool to see what the medics were doing, so I figured that’s probably more where my passion was.”

Trusting that feeling, Bryant is now on leave from her position at JetBlue and in her first semester of the accelerated 15-month nursing program at NYU Meyers, aiming to work in healthcare for older adults one day. Living in New York is also the fulfillment of a longtime dream for the Sex and the City fan who, as a teenager, couldn’t wait to leave her hometown of Tucson, Arizona. (At 18, she moved to Hawaii, and it was an uncle stationed in the military there who suggested she join the Air Force.)

Having valued her independence from an early age—solo backpacking is still her go-to vacation—Bryant credits the Air Force with further encouraging her ability to adapt to changing situations. “In the military you don’t really get a say in who you’re working with—it’s like, ‘you’re together now, make it work,’ ” Bryant says. “When I deployed, I was the only female on my team of 13, and there was no saying ‘Oh, I’m not going to do that as the only girl.’ You deal with it.” A new city? A new career? “I know I can handle pretty much anything that gets thrown my way,” Bryant says. “I know I’ll be okay.”


I really love this country, I love the values we strive for, and I wanted to defend that.
Bryan Coughlin (Stern '18), U.S. Marine Corps 2008-2015
photo: Bryan Coughlin

As a child, Bryan Coughlin couldn’t turn down a challenge—so when people told him being in the military was hard, he figured that might be something he should try someday.

For the Brooklyn native, the 9/11 attacks changed that vague dream into a life plan. “My good friend’s father passed away,” Coughlin recalls, “and my cousin was a firefighter in Red Hook who knew 11 firefighters who were killed. It was a tough time, but it made me say, ‘I really love this country, I love the values we strive for, and I want to defend that.’ ”

After graduating from SUNY Binghamton, Coughlin became an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, stationed at Twentynine Palms in California and deploying to Afghanistan twice—once in 2010 and again in the winter of 2011-2012. Then he was selected to be an instructor at The Basic School, in Quantico, Virginia. “That’s where you teach-entry-level officers—people who just graduated from undergrad—what it takes to be a Marine Corps leader,” Coughlin explains. “It’s everything from ‘this is how you tie your boots’ to ‘this is how you take a platoon to attack a machine gun bunker.’” He counts shaking hands with his students at their graduation as one of his all-time proudest moments. “You can have your own personal accomplishments,” he says, “but to see the growth of people you’re training—that’s really, really awesome.”

As a co-president of the military veterans club at Stern, Coughlin has continued in a mentorship role, helping fellow veterans get acclimated to business school and assisting with resumes and the hunt for internships and summer jobs. “Another goal is to keep that camaraderie of being in the military going—to carry that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood forward as we leave the military and go into the civilian force,” he says.

The father of a two-year-old son (with a new daughter due November 23!), Coughlin has accepted an offer to work in investment banking at Barclays, where he hopes to gain the technical skills to combine with the leadership experience he gained in the Marine Corps and maybe start his own company one day.


When we decide on a goal or a project—a "mission"—veterans tend to do everything we can to meet that goal. 
Andrew Epstein (SPS '17), U.S. Coast Guard 2005-2014
photo: Andrew Epstein

“I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean,” says Andrew Epstein. As a kid growing up in Whippany, New Jersey, he loved boating and fishing, and at 18 he eagerly joined the Coast Guard. Working as far south as the Caribbean and as far north as Canada in fields as diverse as search and rescue, fishery regulation, drug interdiction, and border control, Epstein relished the sensation that what he was doing mattered.

“When we did a man-overboard drill or something like that, I knew that we were going to use that—it was real,” Epstein says. “And on the law enforcement side, we were looking out in defense of our nation. It was here, real, now.” Epstein earned an undergraduate degree along the way, and even deployed to the Middle East, working on a coastal patrol vessel tasked with protecting Iraqi maritime infrastructure. “I liked knowing that I was making an impact,” he says, “and I fell even more in love with it as I went along.”

Then, abruptly, his life changed: One day, about seven years into his military service, Epstein collapsed with a seizure. It had never happened before, but once the seizures started, they didn’t stop: Epstein was diagnosed with epilepsy and honorably discharged from the Coast Guard.

Returning to civilian life was tough; Epstein struggled with depression and anxiety. “In the military, we go through all kinds of stress,” he says, “But the one thing that we always know we have control over is our bodies—so when you lose that sense of control over yourself, it can feel like there’s nothing left.”

Now an SPS master’s student studying transnational security, Epstein is starting a nonprofit to help ease that transition by providing medical support and other resources for veterans with similar injuries. “Traumatic brain injury and epilepsy are now considered the signature wounds for post-9/11 veterans, with about 100,000 veterans affected,” he says. The nonprofit, developed as part of his Capstone Project, will help bridge gaps in support from the Veterans Administration.

Being back in school—and having a new passion project to work on—has helped restore Epstein’s confidence. “One thing that the military has taught me is how to set and chase a goal,” he says. “We need to build encouragement for more veterans to strive for education when they leave the service, because they’re ready for it. They just might not know it.”


I've been in a war zone and seen real life and death situations. It puts everything else in perspective.
Juneisy Hawkins (GSAS PhD student), U.S. Navy 2001-2006
photo: Juneisy Hawkins

Growing up in Miami, Juneisy Hawkins always knew that she wanted an education, but wasn’t sure that her family—who had immigrated from Cuba—could afford it. “With college,” she says, “the message from my parents was: ‘You’re going to do it, but how’?”

With the G.I. Bill as a powerful incentive, Hawkins joined the U.S. Navy a few years after high school and served as a hospital corpsman for five years, working at a U.S. Navy Hospital in Naples and on the hospital ship USNS Comfort for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraq Freedom. Afterward, she got married, earned her bachelor’s degree in history, and had a son who’s now 8.

In addition to funding her education, Hawkins’s military service changed her outlook on life. “I’ve been in a war zone and I’ve seen real life and death situations,” she says. “It really puts everything else in perspective. I now practice triage in my everyday life.”

Now in her second year as a PhD student in the history department, Hawkins is studying how food shaped relationships in early America. Her degree will mark the culmination of a long journey—one that she hopes others will be inspired to take.

“It is very difficult for the child of immigrants to get to where I am in higher education,” Hawkins reflects. “I'm very proud of the path that I've chosen, and I hope I can serve as a role model not only for other Cuban Americans, but also Hispanic women in general, who are very underrepresented in academia right now.”


Many veterans may be older and have family responsibilities by the time they start college. It's really important to create access for those students.
Erik Herron (Law ’17), U.S. Army 2009-2014
photo: Erik Herron

As a cryptologic linguist in the U.S. Army, Erik Herron spent 18 months in language school learning Arabic and Pashto, three years stationed in Germany, and a short time in Afghanistan.

Such an experience would’ve been life-changing for almost anyone, but for Herron it had the added benefit of introducing him to his spouse: “We were both Arabic students, we both went to Germany together, we got married, and then we had a daughter there,” Herron says. A second daughter was born during the winter break of Herron’s second year of law school—timing which was, he laughs, “a bit hectic.”

Herron grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, graduated from Fordham University in 2007, and joined the U.S. Army in 2009. Now in his third year of law school, he’s working as an intern at the Securities Exchange Commission’s New York office and has a job lined up at a corporate law firm in Washington, D.C. for after graduation, with an eye toward transitioning back to government work at some point.

As part of the SERV veterans group at NYU, Herron has been lobbying the university to commit more resources to the Yellow Ribbon Program, and credits student advocacy for spurring NYU’s recent tripling of Yellow Ribbon grants to undergraduates. (A number of graduate schools also increased their support.)

“That’s pretty exciting,” Herron says. “I already had a college degree when I went into the military, but the vast majority of people taking advantage of this program would be people who joined the military right out of high school and who never had an opportunity to go school. Now that they’re older, they might have family responsibilities, so it’s really important to create access for those students. We’re very proud to be able to advocate on their behalf.”


I've sort of been running from my love of music most of my life.
Jason Joven (Gallatin ’16, Steinhardt ’18), U.S. Navy 2010-2014
photo: Jason Joven

“Call it a quarter life crisis or I don’t know what,” Jason Joven says of his decision to join the U.S. Navy at the age of 27. “I was craving discipline and a steady income, and I wanted to experience something totally different.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign with a marketing degree, Joven, who’d grown up in the Chicago suburbs, moved to Los Angeles to chase his dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. “I bounced around the open-mic scene for a few years before getting involved with film and going on some auditions,” recalls Joven, who booked parts in a few small commercials, made a handful of short films of his own, and even landed the role of an extra in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. “But after four or five years, the whole struggling artist lifestyle was wearing on me,” he says.

Joven did some research on which military positions were best suited to his skills and decided to become a cryptologic officer, serving for four years on shore duty in San Antonio, Texas. The experience gave his life just the sort of reboot he was looking for: “I worked with all branches of the military and some really talented civilians too,” Joven reflects. “It was probably the single biggest growth experience I’ve ever had. I think I really grew up a lot.”

Afterward, he was ready to pursue his artistic passions with renewed focus. Attracted by the diversity of opportunities available in New York City, he earned a master’s degree from NYU’s Gallatin School, studying the intersections between pop music, race, and social media. (His thesis focused on racial stereotypes employed by commenters on YouTube videos of East Asian male music artists.) As the son of Filipino immigrants and a performer himself, Joven has a personal interest in understanding how race and ethnicity influence how artists are perceived. “When you come from a minority place—whether that be your sexuality, religion, race, or socioeconomic background—you get framed differently,” he explains. “My thesis helped me understand that, and I feel like this will shape whatever I do with music from this point on.”

Now in his first semester of Steinhardt’s music business graduate program, Joven counts a couple of EPs he put out on Soundcloud this year as among his proudest accomplishments. “I’ve sort of been running from my love of music most of my life, thinking it wasn't a legitimate career path,” Joven says. “But now I’ve finally come to a place where I feel like I can be a creative person while making a decent living and having a roof over my head.”


I was one of the first female officers to work in the submarine force, where women hadn't been allowed to serve before.
Sohnhwa Lee (Stern ’18), U.S. Navy, 2005-present
photo: Sohnhwa Lee

On her first visit to the Stern School, on a Sunday back in 2011, Lee wasn’t sure where to turn for information about the M.B.A. program. Having squeezed a New York City stop into an East Coast visit on Navy business, she approached the first person she saw on Gould Plaza—and soon found herself chatting with current students. “People were very helpful and friendly in talking about their experiences,” she says. Years later, when she learned that she had been selected for the Navy's fully-funded graduate education program for active-duty officers, it was a military veteran then enrolled in the MBA program who convinced her to apply there. Though her Navy career has taken her around the world, this would be her first time living in New York City. “It’s a little hectic,” says Lee, now in her first semester “but it’s obviously a very vibrant city. I’m never bored, so that’s good!”

Lee moved from her native South Korea to the United States after her sophomore year of college, eventually graduating from the University of Washington. After commissioning in 2005 through Officer Candidate School, her first assignment was as a supply officer on a destroyer based in San Diego. Then she worked as a logistics intern at Naval Systems and Command in Washington D.C., before becoming one of the first-ever female officers to serve on a submarine: the U.S.S. Ohio. Most recently, she was stationed in South Korea.

Now, as a member of Stern’s veterans club, she’s been playing the same role as the helpful students she met years ago, offering advice to prospective Stern students looking to pause from or transition out of the military. “That can be a little nerve-racking,” Lee says. “I understand what they’re going through.

With 11 years of service under her belt, Lee will return to the Navy for another four years after earning her M.B.A. before she is eligible to retire. “I definitely miss my military folks—that’s my comfort zone, I know what I’m doing there,” she says. “But obviously right now I’m focused on getting back into the academic environment. It’s a challenge, but I’m surviving.”


How can we change our systems to focus on specific veterans issues, like homelessness and mental health?
Alexander Marte (Wagner ’17), U.S. Marine Corps 2008-2012
photo: Alexander Marte

“I worked for a while and I hated everything I did because it wasn’t part of a larger picture,” says Alexander Marte, recalling the tumultuous period that followed leaving college after just one semester. “I felt like I wasn’t doing anything with true meaning.”

That’s when he looked to the U.S. Marine Corps—wondering, he says, if going to war was a way to make a difference in the world. “I didn’t want to be an accountant or an electrician, which I was selected for, and could’ve been paid more money to do. I wanted to be on the ground, to experience what the movies portrayed, which is why I ended up in the infantry.”

There were certainly bright spots during Marte’s five years of service: He felt useful providing relief in Haiti after the earthquake in 2008, and today he cherishes the friends he made—fellow soldiers with whom he bonded so strongly that he can now call out of the blue after not talking for years. “It just clicks,” he says. But he’s ambivalent, too. “Serving in Afghanistan I was a little bit conflicted,” Marte says, “because I felt that our purpose there got lost.”

Because of the military, Marte got a second chance at an education, earning an undergraduate degree in criminal justice management from John Jay College before beginning a master’s degree in urban planning at the Wagner School. He hopes to work as an urban planning strategist, coming up with plans to revitalize economically depressed neighborhoods, and for his capstone project he has been working with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development on the revitalization of Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood.

As chair of the WagVets executive board, Marte has led an effort to shift the organization from a networking group to one more focused on advocacy, using public policy expertise to address the social, economic, and medical issues that veterans often face upon return to civilian life. “I’m a walking portrait of this,” Marte said, alluding to his own struggle to readjust.

When asked whether he’s proud of his accomplishments, Marte demurs, saying he’ll wait until graduation to take stock of how far he’s traveled. “I’m not really happy with short wins,” Marte says. “I want to get things done, turn the page, and then try to establish bigger goals for later on.”


I didn't want to regret not trying something different.
Samantha Sarkis (Stern ’18), U.S. Air Force 2011-2016

photo: Samantha Sarkin

Growing up in Chaska, Minnesota, Samantha Sarkis never pictured herself joining the military—as a competitive high school tennis player, it just wasn’t something that crossed her mind. But when the Air Force Academy began recruiting her for tennis, she suddenly had a decision to make. “I didn’t want to regret not trying something that was different,” Sarkis recalls. “Better, I thought, to go to a military school and then if it doesn’t work out go to a civilian school than always wonder what it would have been like the other way around.” Today, she’s sure she made the right choice: “I really loved the camaraderie of the academy,” she says, “as well as opportunity to play tennis, get a great education, and become a better leader.”

After graduation, she spent five years at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, working first as an acquisitions officer on communication upgrade projects for various air force platforms that allowed them to execute missions successfully overseas. Then she worked in recruiting operations responsible for New England, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, finding prospective high school and college graduates interested in starting a career in the military. “I got to meet so many people with different backgrounds and reasons for wanting to join. Being able to give these individuals the opportunity to serve their country and have a career with great benefits is something I’m really proud of,” Sarkis says.

Sarkis chose Stern partly because its prime location in New York City, the headquarters to almost every luxury retail powerhouse for whom she hopes to work as a consultant after graduation. “I’m interested in consulting because of the variety of projects you get to work on across multiple industries and brands,” she says. “In the military we always had to rotate to different assignments every couple years, so to have to ramp up and learn something new is not a drawback for me, especially if it means gaining experience.”  


I was a 10th-grade dropout and now I'm about to be a college graduate. I'm pretty proud of that.
Rishi Soneja (Steinhardt ’17), U.S. Army 2008-2011

photo: Rishi Soneja

Rishi Soneja was known as the unofficial cook of his Army barracks: Even with no real kitchen to work with, he commandeered a hot plate, hung pots and pans from the ceiling, and whipped up meals for anyone who brought him ingredients. “My battle buddies would come to me and say, ‘I’m hungry, here’s food, can you make something?” he recalls. “I’ve just always enjoyed cooking.”

Now a senior in Steinhardt’s nutrition and food studies program, Soneja is looking forward to graduation and dreams of starting his own catering company one day, or launching a sustainable farming initiative. Channeling the resourcefulness he learned in the military, he recently built a pizza oven from scratch.

But his path here was anything but certain. Growing up as one of five siblings in Raleigh, North Carolina, Soneja wasn’t really interested in getting a traditional education. “I had good parents, but I strayed into the wrong direction,” he says. The low point came when dropped out of high school in 10th grade. “Without the Army, I wouldn’t be here having this conversation today.”

After serving for three years as a field artillery soldier—including a tour of duty in Baghdad—Soneja earned his associate’s degree at Bergen Community College before transferring to NYU. A friend who invited him to share a house with three other veterans provided essential support during his transition from combat back to civilian life—something that he now strives to do for fellow students in his role as president of the NYU Military Alliance.

“My main goal is to help build community here and direct veterans to the resources they need,” Soneja says. “In the military you have this built-in sense of family—when you need something, you don’t really even have to ask. But when you get out it’s different. You don’t have 10 people behind you willing to help—you’re just one person trying to do 10 different tasks.”