Most Georgetown undergraduates turn 21 amid a throng of friends at The Tombs and receive a smeared, black stamp on their foreheads to inaugurate their first night of legal drinking.
Alex Horton (COL ’13) got a different kind of mark.
“I got a pink belly for it,” Horton said. “It’s when a group of people hold you down and take off your shirt and slap you in the stomach until [it] turns red.”
According to Horton, getting “pink-bellied” is a birthday tradition in the army.
Horton spent his 21st birthday in Kuwait, just days before crossing the border into Iraq to serve his tour of duty. Since he was on base at the time, Horton did not get to partake in any drinking, although he was allowed to skip trash cleanup for the night.
FROM THE FRONT TO THE HILLTOP
After returning from Iraq, Horton took up a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But getting an education remained a priority for him.
“[The] George Washington [University] was the most logical choice because it was close to work, it was on the Metro line, I knew people who went there, they had a good veterans program,” Horton said. “I never even considered [Georgetown] as an option.”
Only a few days before the deadline, Horton decided to apply to Georgetown, and to his surprise, he got in.
One major problem for Horton was Georgetown’s requirement that traditional undergrads take a full course load. Only seniors are permitted to take fewer than 12 credits; other undergraduates wishing to attend part-time must do so through the school of continuing studies.
For a veteran working 40 hours per week, taking at least four classes was a hard sell.
But swayed by the prestige and quality of a Georgetown education, Horton ultimately made the choice to study on the Hilltop.
BRIDGING THE DIVIDE
For T.M. Gibbons-Neff (COL ’15), the lone veteran in the current freshman class, being a member of the boxing team and working as a treasurer for Georgetown University Student Veterans of America helped to smooth a tough transition into academia.
“A lot of people don’t understand that when you leave the Marines, you’re not just leaving a job, you’re leaving a family,” Gibbons-Neff said. “It’s kind of hard to relate to some of the younger kids here, but you know, it’s a challenge and it’s fun.”
Horton often struggles with how open to be about his experiences with other students.
“The day you introduce yourself is the hardest day for me,” Horton said. “It all goes back to how much I want to reveal.”
Horton said that sometimes he feels like other students try to distance themselves from veterans.
“It’s hard to know what’s a generational thing and what’s an experience thing,” he said.
GUSVA President Colby Howard (SFS ’12) agreed.
“Some of the challenge [is] merely age,” Howard said. “Also, the type of experience and intensity of experiences you’ve had overseas.”
He added that some students tend to have preconceptions about veterans.
“The overarching stereotype is that a service member isn’t smart,” Howard said.
But Howard, Horton and Gibbons-Neff agreed that the interactions they have had with other students and faculty have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I was ready to not like students in class,” Horton said, “but a lot of them turn[ed] out to be insightful and smart.”
Veterans face a very specific set of concerns when adjusting to college; juggling course schedules and financial aid while making a shift from military life to civilian life.
“You’re going from something very structured, very regimented … to this university,” said David Shearman (SFS ’11) who served in the Army for six years in Kosovo, Iraq and Germany. “If you don’t have someone … lead you through it the first time or at least show you how to navigate it … it can be very overwhelming.”
Until recently, Georgetown did not have an office to accommodate incoming veteran students aside from a single employee who handled GI Bill-related paperwork among several other responsibilities.
A veteran himself, Shearman applied to take the helm of the fledgling Veterans Office, which was established in February 2011. In the year since, the university has promoted Shearman from a part-time to a full-time employee while he pursues a Master’s degree in security studies.
Currently, the office works with 425 students, including students on active duty, veterans who have left active duty and dependents and spouses of veterans. This year, 18 students from that group are enrolled in a traditional undergraduate program.
According to Howard and Shearman, the number of student veterans will likely increase this year as active duty military return from Iraq and potentially from Afghanistan.
In the future, Shearman hopes to increase programming activities.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, I think, in the academic departments, working with faculty, working with … the women’s center, [the] LGBTQ center and other campus resources to really use the veteran experience to expand … the richness of the environment on campus,” Shearmansaid.
INCREASING PRESENCE AND PERSPECTIVE
Howard and Shearman agree that veterans add diversity to the campus.
“In the times that we’re in with all the world conflicts, [there are] always questions about defense policy, national security policy, foreign affairs,” Shearman said. “[A]s you see the number of student veterans at Georgetown increase, you’re going to have a richer dialogue on thosethings.”
The two also said that Georgetown has begun working toward active recruitment, which entails traveling to military bases and veterans’ organizations to increase awareness of Georgetown there.
“We want to bring more student veterans to Georgetown,” Howard said.
Plans to accomplish this are already in the works under the banner of the Georgetown Veterans Admission Project, which is being coordinated by GUSVA and will eventually be run by the Office of Admissions. Though the project is still in its beginning stages, project’s goal is for veterans to compose 1 percent of every incoming freshman class.
Howard also hopes to add a veteran perspective to Blue and Gray’s campus tours as well as have a certified guide printed by the admissions offices to help veterans during the application process.
“I think student veterans could definitely stand to have a little more exposure on campus,” Shearmansaid.