Beyond the Call of Duty

For Veterans Day, a look at efforts being made across the University to smooth re-entry into both civilian and academic life.
photo: GI Joe model holding a molecule on a pink background
This molecule-holding toy soldier, along with all the green plastic army men and women used throughout this story, were sculpted by artist Murun Thornton. They represent the diverse areas of study that members of the military might pursue at NYU after their service to the country.

What do you do after you’ve served your country, saved the lives of fellow soldiers, and performed humanitarian work abroad? For Mary Nadolny (CGPH ’18), it was time to plan her civilian life, which meant “going through a graduate program for the pure joy of education,” she says. Having spent 29 years as a naval officer and nurse anesthetist in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places, Nadolny is now pursuing a double master’s in public administration and public health at the College of Global Public Health.

Mitchell Day (LAW ’18), a law student and former field artillery officer, was inspired to continue his education during his tour of duty overseas. “While in Afghanistan, I began to understand some of the implications of the law and its implementation through the use of force,” he says. “I realized how important the rule of law is. Law school was a natural progression after that.”

For others, completing their time in the military is an opportunity to undertake the undergraduate study they postponed. But they may face obstacles. “A veteran is older than your typical freshman, so it sets them apart,” says Nadolny, who is also president of the NYU Military Alliance, which connects and supports students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are former or current military personnel, as well as their dependents. Their otherness isn’t measured merely in years. “They have had life challenges,” Nadolny says. “Some have been deployed in combat or out to sea on a submarine or on an aircraft in a no-fly zone. They’re different human beings than [most] freshmen.” 

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And their ranks are growing. Since the passage of the Post–9/11 GI Bill in 2008, which now requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to pay schools directly and allows vets to transfer their educational benefits to their dependents, the number of ex–military members and their families enrolling in higher education has significantly increased. “The American Council on Education reports that the post–9/11 veteran population will reach 5 million by 2020,” says Rollie Carencia (STEINHARDT ’13), assistant director of NYU’s Student Resource Center and adviser to the Military Alliance. Enrolled at this university, he says, “there are roughly 400 veterans or reservists, their spouses, or their dependents, and that number is estimated to increase.” 

It’s the loyalty, leadership, and resilience that vets acquire that make them appealing candidates for entrepreneurship programs like those at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business and the Tandon School of Engineering, which actively recruit vets of all ranks and service branches. “They bring grit and persistence, two important qualities if you want to be a business leader,” says Peter Henry, dean of Stern. “They understand how to work in a team and that leadership is not just about IQ, it’s about EQ.”

But the same factors that make veterans strong leaders can present difficulties as students. Some of the challenge is financial. “Typically, your veteran is going it alone” without parental financial support, Nadolny says. “The norm is that they’ve already left the nest. And even with the GI Bill, New York is still an expensive city.” 

On top of that, they may be out of practice when it comes to writing papers or CVs. “One of the hardest things to do is to take your military experiences and reframe those as civilian skills,” Nadolny explains. “Being an OIC [officer in charge] doesn’t translate directly when you’re networking or drawing up a résumé.”

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Recognizing these hurdles, NYU has embarked on a university-wide effort to make the often-complicated transition from military to civilian life as seamless as possible. Below are some of the many and diverse ways in which this university is empowering the extraordinary soldiers of yesterday to become the remarkable students of today and the exceptional graduates of tomorrow. 

Transitional Support

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It can be challenging to navigate the myriad programs and applications at a university the size of this one. The NYU Military Alliance—that centralized, student-run group—is responsible for large-scale events such as the unveiling of the plaque in Schwartz Plaza in honor of those in the NYU community who’ve served in the military and the annual Veterans Ball, where service members and others from the university, present and past, don uniforms or formal attire to dine, dance, and honor those who aid that student population.

But the organization’s overall aim, says its president, Nadolny, is to “find and support NYU veterans with whatever they need. Whether it’s how to navigate the GI Bill or the VA medical system, our goal is to set them up for success.” Assisting with emotional issues is a big component. “We want to make sure they have the opportunity for mentorship, friendship, and a sense of what they left behind when they left the military,” says Nadolny. “You learn how to develop very significant bonds very quickly, especially in a deployed or overseas setting, and I think most of us miss that instant connection with another human being.”

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Wagner’s group WagVets provides academic and professional help and recently began a welcome campaign that includes forums on everything from mental health to public speaking. At the School of Law, Students for the Education and Representation of Veterans (NYUSERV) lends legal aid on veteran-specific issues, facilitates networking with military-connected lawyers, and partners with the Urban Justice Center to provide pro bono services to the city’s vets. The group is currently working on making the GI Bill more flexible so that it will cover out-of-pocket costs for unpaid summer internships, which are considered a crucial part of a law school education. 

According to Day, the third-year law student and a past president of NYUSERV, “Many veterans are older, have more financial obligations, and also have families to support, myself included. Allowing me, and other students like me, the option to draw my GI Bill living stipend benefits during the summer is a win for everyone.” 

Meanwhile, students and alumni of Stern have the Military Veterans Club. And incoming Fertitta scholars receive “peer support and periods of acclimation,” says Henry. It also helps vets get back into the swing of school with statistics classes and career workshops. In addition, Stern has undertaken efforts to connect MBA student veterans with New York’s larger military community and is co-sponsoring this year’s Veterans on Wall Street (VOWS) conference, where financial industry leaders host panels about veteran employment.  

Financial Aid

Garen Marshall (LAW ’14) defused bombs over the course of 120 excursions in Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a student at NYU, he found a new mission: to attract vets to the School of Law with free tuition. As a result of his efforts, many colleges at NYU are investing more in the VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program, which works in the following way: private universities offer a veterans-only scholarship for a portion of the tuition not covered by the GI Bill (which tops out at $22,905.34), then the Yellow Ribbon Program matches that amount. The School of Law increased its Yellow Ribbon waiver to a substantial $20,000, one of the most generous in the country, making a degree virtually free.

photo: GI Joe model playing a flute

In 2017, the Center for Urban Science and Progress upped its waivers so that the combination of funds from the center and the VA covers the entire tuition for qualified recipients. Last year the Yellow Ribbon grants at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service tripled, with Wagner’s portion going up to $10,000. The School of Professional Studies boosted its grants to $5,500, while the Gallatin School of Individualized Study’s rose to $5,000.

At the Silver School of Social Work, the Yellow Ribbon waiver is $7,500, and veterans pursuing either a bachelor’s or master’s degree can supplement this aid by applying for a Schultz Veteran Fellowship; this provides a tuition scholarship, a stipend to defray living expenses, and mentorship from a veteran Silver alum. The Tandon School of Engineering offers a $12,500 grant, and for years the Stern School of Business has awarded scholarships separate from its Yellow Ribbon grants (up to $10,000). “In the 2010–2011 academic year, we received an anonymous gift to fund scholarships for veterans,” Henry says. “Military men and women have extraordinary leadership experience but need an opportunity to learn how to apply those skills in a civilian business context. We [also] created a special veterans recruiting weekend, which has grown substantially. We found as we admitted more and more veterans that they perform extremely well in the program.”

So well that in 2016, Stern launched the Fertitta Veterans Program. The $15 million endowment from alumnus Lorenzo Fertitta (STERN ’93) and his brother, Frank J. Fertitta III, will reduce the tuition of more than 20 scholarship recipients to $30,000 per year—and still leave them eligible for Yellow Ribbon grants.

Mental Health Care

photo: GI Joe model in boxing gloves

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Post-traumatic stress. Grief. Loss. Depression. Anxiety. Substance abuse. Since 2012, the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at NYU Langone has been treating non–active duty military personnel and their family members for these conditions and more. “We don’t charge insurance, and we don’t charge the vets—it’s completely free,” says Irina Wen, director of the clinic, which offers a wide range of services, including therapy (individual, group, couples, and family) and medication consultation and management. 

One treatment subspecialty, traumatic brain injury, provides assessments and cognitive remediation therapy for mild to moderate injuries. The program related to ADHD (a condition that frequently coexists with PTSD) evaluates patients and teaches them compensatory mechanisms for their attentional and concentration difficulties. “We’re also growing our telehealth program,” Wen adds, “so patients who cannot come in can see the therapist via video.”

Entrepreneurial Training

Given the camaraderie among soldiers, it’s not surprising that some former servicemen and servicewomen use their education to create opportunities for their peers. One such student graduated with an MBA from Stern, completed the Veterans Entrepreneurship Training (VET) Program at Tandon, then joined JP Morgan, where he helped run the small-business lending division that secures loans for veterans. Tandon’s VET Program is a free 10-week course for 15 to 20 veterans or their spouses (in or outside of NYU) with an idea for a start-up. 

photo: GI Joe model holding a painting

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“It aims to take the skills they already have—leadership, organization, and an ability to act quickly in high-stress situations—and give them the other entrepreneurial tools they need, like marketing on a budget, accounting, sales, prototyping,” says Craig Wilson (STERN ’14), general manager of Tandon’s Digital Future Labs. The success of the program led to the launch this year of the Veterans Future Lab, an incubator for growing technology and entrepreneurship in New York City that’s been designed specifically for veterans. Its eight to 10 participants, some of whom have completed the VET Program, have access to resources such as free space and pro bono legal help. The goal is that once their businesses are up and running, it won’t just be the founders who benefit but also the university, city, and state that nurtured them.  

Creative Inspiration

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Tisch School of the Arts: Recorded Music

The Veterans Writing Workshop, which was founded in 2009 as one of the NYU Creative Writing Program’s literary outreach initiatives, is “widely seen as the preeminent new writing workshop for veterans,” according to the New York Times. At least six books have come out of the gatherings. “The amount of talent has just been overwhelming,” says Zachary Sussman (GSAS ’08), graduate program manager. He remembers a writer at an early meeting “who read one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever heard.” That program member was Phil Klay, who subsequently won the 2014 National Book Award for Redeployment, his collection of short stories.

“I think we’ve developed a reputation for being a place where people who seriously want to write about their experience in combat and homecoming have a forum to do that,” adds Sussman. “We don’t consider ourselves art therapy. We’re really trying to lead a rigorous creative writing workshop that focuses on elements of craft. It just happens to be for veterans.”

While the workshop is open to anyone in the city, it is led by graduate student fellows who are enrolled in the Creative Writing Program. “What’s been really gratifying is that a handful of participants have applied to the MFA program, been accepted, and then led the workshop as a fellow,” says Sussman. Authors, including Faculty of Arts and Science English professor Yusef Komunyakaa, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, often guest teach.

A version of this story appears in the Fall 2017 NYU Alumni Magazine.