At a welcome dinner for incoming freshmen at Vassar College, one table in the back stands out among the mostly 18-year-olds. It’s a group of slightly more-seasoned looking military veterans.
They’re part of the third veteran “posse” at Vassar, recruited from around the country to attend this prestigious liberal arts college on a full ride. They spent four weeks over the summer doing team-building workshops and preparing for rigorous academic work. During the first two years at Vassar, the group will work closely with a faculty mentor.
“We have a bond that is unique to the military, and so I think that that will benefit us throughout our journey here,” says Janine Smith, 26.
Smith did six years active duty in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan. Now, she’s in the Reserve.
The Posse Foundation made its name helping send high-achieving, low-income students to selective colleges in groups of 10, known as posses. If they bond as a group and get lots of support along the way, the thinking goes, they’re more likely to stick it out to graduation. Now Posse is trying the same approach for military veterans as they return to school on the GI Bill.
The veterans program was the brain child of Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar’s president, as part of an effort to make this elite campus in New York’s Hudson Valley more diverse.
“For our students, to have young men and women who have served, I think exposes them to some ideas and experiences that just haven’t been on their radar screens,” Hill says.
The program has since expanded to include Wesleyan University and now Dartmouth. Posse aims to have veterans on at least a dozen selective campuses within the next few years.
At Vassar, some have struggled with the demands of the Posse program. In addition to all the classes and mentoring sessions, students are expected to take leadership roles and be active in campus life. Ex-Marine Keith Kohlmann is starting his sophomore year. He’s 32 and lives with his fiancée and their two young sons.
“We bring with us families and children and mortgages and all these different types of issues,” he says. “You can’t tell your children, ‘Hey, I can’t be around because I have to go to some group or some meeting.’”
Two students have left the college, and another dropped out of Posse but stayed on campus. Hill acknowledges it hasn’t been easy adapting a program that was designed for kids just out of high school to meet the needs of adults.
“I think where we probably weren’t as sensitive was for students with families, because that is something that we just haven’t dealt with,” she says. “But there is a lot of evidence that that kind of spending time together does ultimately help them get through in the end.”
It’s too early to know how many will get through. The first veteran posse will graduate next year, but Hill says Vassar’s overall graduation rate is much higher than that of many community colleges and for-profit schools that traditionally recruit veterans.