Balanced on the edge of an armchair in the basement of Vassar College’s student center, Eduardo de la Torre is explaining his senior thesis: an exploration of the social construction of technology. The soon-to-be graduate, bouncing on the heels of his grey suede sneakers, looks ready to spring out of his seat as he articulates ideas with frenetic energy, barely able to express connections he’s observed before the next thought sparks. As a fellow Vassar graduate, I feel myself lulled back into a comfortable mode of intellectual discourse, reminded of the fact that de la Torre is a combat Army veteran, and that we’re sitting in a brand new student-veteran lounge, only when he relates his critique of applied economic theory to the difference between a battle’s expected conditions and its reality.
“I joke with my Army buddies, I tell them [theory] is like the plane that gets you there,” the 36-year-old former paratrooper, who deployed to Iraq for the 2007 surge, said. “But once you jump out of the plane, everything else is different on the ground. That’s how you have to look at economics.”
Hardly any Vassar student could have arrived at this analogy until four years ago, when de la Torre and 10 other United States military veterans embarked on an experiment Vassar was leading among small, selective liberal-arts colleges: to seek out and enroll vets. In partnership with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit with a successful track record of connecting students from underrepresented backgrounds with elite schools, Vassar enrolled its first cohort of veterans in the fall of 2013. The results of this effort became clearer in May as five of those student-veterans, including de la Torre, graduated after spending the traditional four years on campus.