Indeed, they aren’t. Ten years later, I’m in northern Manhattan, in my second and final year of graduate school at Columbia University. As a middle-school dropout who picked cabbages and swung a hammer for most of my formative years, the fact that I’m now attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country is something I still have trouble believing.
My hometown of Tehachapi, California, population 12,500, is a poor place. More than a fifth of its residents are under the poverty line, and 40 percent of students (including me, once upon a time) qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Tehachapi has a median household income of $41,700, which puts it in the second-lowest income quintile for neighborhoods across the country, an overrepresented set in the military. I was a lot less educated, and a little poorer, but otherwise typical of the average enlisted American: Two-thirds of the 159,000 enlistees in 2007, when I enlisted, were white men, mainly young people from small towns and rural areas.
I left Tehachapi with a sense of self-confidence that only a teenager can conjure. In doing so, I followed a time-honored tradition of using the military as a springboard to overcome a relatively poor upbringing. In that process, I’ve found that the relationship between poverty and patriotism is a tricky one; many in poverty are proud of their country not because they have attained true freedom, prosperity, and happiness, but because they dream of doing so someday. Even without really knowing freedom, I was convinced it was worth defending.
By the time I’d enrolled at Columbia—before that, and after the Marine Corps, I’d worked at the financial consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers—I’d attained a measure of that freedom. But being on an elite campus after living the life I’ve lived is often jarring.
I remember how it felt when, earlier this year, in a class on development economics, a slide came up that read, “Education investment by the poor—why don’t they go to school?” My classmates proceeded to discuss this “they” and their motivations. It was surreal to have my own experience encapsulated in a PowerPoint slide, and I realized just how little of a grasp some of my peers had on the lives of people much poorer than them. How can poverty be solved when the future policy makers and development economists of the world have little to no personal experience with the problems they aim to address?
Veterans who came from poverty have a lot to contribute to college campuses. They are some of the smartest, most driven people I’ve ever met. The traits instilled in me from the military—decisive leadership, diligence, and calmness under pressure—are the very same that have made me a successful management consultant and graduate student.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how unusual my Ivy League story was. Last year, there was only one veteran attending Princeton as an undergrad, and just three at Harvard. In fact, in 2016, out of the 160,000 people enrolled in a group of 36 top-flight undergraduate programs, just 645—or about 0.4 percent—of them were veterans. There are estimated to be 22 million veterans in the U.S., which works out to about 8 or 9 percent of American adults—meaning veterans are grossly underrepresented at these 36 schools. It’s not that veterans aren’t going to school—they are. Research by the Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit, on the educational outcomes of 800,000 veterans between 2001 and 2010 indicates that 52 percent completed postsecondary education, and many went on to earn multiple degrees. And yet so few of them ended up at top schools.