From Service to Scholarship


Whether it’s basic training for a new career or an advanced degree for upward mobility, these military veterans find UM to be a welcoming partner in the next chapter of their lives.

“My twin boys were born two weeks before I deployed,” says Capt. Donald Wagner, left, with fellow veterans Sgt. Paul Agbeyegbe, A.B. ’11, and Col. Alice Kerr, M.A.L.S. ’97.

Donald Wagner is probably the only student at the University of Miami School of Law who can say he took a helicopter to his LSAT. That’s because he was in Afghanistan. The location was a distance-learning classroom, and there was just one other student. In addition to a No. 2 pencil, he brought a rifle. Fortunately, he didn’t need to use the rifle that day, but just taking the exam was a triumph of determination. “I spent three years as an infantryman, including a year in Afghanistan,” says Wagner, a U.S. Army captain and third-year law student. “I would work a 12- to 15-hour day and then go back to my room and study before going to sleep.”

By contrast, U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Chad Brick, who began graduate study this fall at the School of Business Administration, occasionally had to catch his sack time during the day. Coast Guard work includes law enforcement actions, and criminals often operate under the cover of darkness. “There was a 90-minute chase in the Florida Straits in the middle of the night, illuminated by search lights from helicopters, with drug smugglers throwing bales of marijuana overboard and finally ramming our boat with theirs in an attempt to sink us and get away,” Brick recalls. “Another night, a boat smuggling would-be immigrants overturned, putting 16 people into the water who had to be rescued.” Pretty Miami Vice stuff for a guy who is at the University to get an M.B.A. in finance.

Here on campus they don’t wear uniforms, march, or salute. But whether they’re students (generally a bit older than their counterparts), staff, or newly minted alumni, what they share—aside from being part of the family of achievers the U brings together so well—is current or recent military service.

Historically the University has been a welcoming place for veterans, from training and housing cadets for the U.S. Army Air Corps’s World War II efforts to President Donna E. Shalala’s recent service as co-chair of the Commission on Care for Returning Wounded Warriors. South Florida’s geographic location gives it strategic importance and a large regional military population. Veterans seeking college degrees and officers seeking advanced training have long turned to UM as a school of choice.

Today, ten years after 9/11 and with continuing U.S. involvement in conflicts around the world, there is a growing population of young adults with military—and often combat—experience. 

Army Sergeant Amber Cotton, B.S.N. ’07, managed a trauma ICU unit during her 2003 deployment to Iraq. She came back to UM for her master’s degree in nursing and wound up helping last year’s earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. “The School of Nursing and Health Studies has an exceptional facility and faculty that make you really want to go the extra mile to make a difference in the world,” she says. 

The University’s student veteran population falls fairly consistently between 100 and 150 students each year—this in addition to a healthy enrollment in the ROTC program on campus. UM’s open-door policy comes right from the top. Writing recently in The Washington Post, President Shalala said, “Most professors will tell you that returning veterans are a motivated group; they study hard, are highly focused, and they bring a unique perspective to the classroom. Many have served in leadership positions. Many have traveled and fought abroad and seen other cultures up close. Nearly all have experienced the implications of U.S. political policies firsthand. Those perspectives are too valuable not to be shared throughout the academic community.”

For this reason, UM is one of the schools participating in the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship Program, a federal matching funds supplement to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is the 2009 update of the U.S. benefit package for veterans. Spearheading UM’s Yellow Ribbon effort is Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. “We owe veterans a debt of gratitude,” he says, “and we are committed to making sure the University of Miami is completely available to veterans.” This year UM significantly increased the opportunity for Yellow Ribbon matches and will gauge the response to its enhanced commitment.  

TRANSITIONING

For those who have served overseas, the transition from a war zone to a comparatively idyllic campus life can be difficult. Returning from his first tour in Afghanistan was a real “double whammy,” says Wagner. “First, going to Afghanistan is like being dropped on the face of the moon—everything is brown. When you come home to a place like Miami, one of the first things you notice is the greenness, the grass and the trees. Second, I had been out of school for 15 years. I’m older than most of the other students, and I have a family, so I can’t just blend in.”

He and U.S. Marines First Lieutenant Ted Massey, also a third-year law student at UM, recently launched the Military Law Society and the National Security and Armed Conflict Law Review journal at the School of Law.

Sergeant Paul Agbeyegbe, A.B. ’11, a first-year law student, served a year in Iraq with the Florida Army National Guard. Reentry into student life in Miami “was tough for me,” he recalls. “You have to relearn how to be a civilian. Back then, I didn’t understand how students thought any more, why they acted the way they did. And whether I walked into a classroom or went to a concert, I had difficulty relaxing—I noticed everything, especially where the exits were.”

From left, finance major and former Marine Juan Carlos Castillo and M.B.A. student Lt. Cmdr. Chad Brick are among some 160 student veterans at UM.

Alice Kerr, M.A.L.S. ’97, and her staff monitor more than 100 projects in UM’s Information Technology Department. But three years ago, Kerr, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, was “mayor” of Camp Striker, a military town in Iraq with a population around the size of UM’s student body. Kerr, recently promoted to colonel, says the two jobs are not so different. “If you were to open up any book on organizational leadership or project management, it was just what I was doing in Iraq, with the exception of bullets flying and bombs dropping in our front yard. The difference here,” she adds with a laugh, “is I have to decide what I want to wear in the morning.”

Returning to UM may have been easier for Kerr because Iraq wasn’t her first tour. “I had the benefit of previous combat experience to help me with the transition,” she says. “Unfortunately, being a reservist, you are returned to your civilian life just as unceremoniously as you were plucked from it. Unless you live by a military installation, there aren’t too many people around who can understand your experience or your point of view. People were kind and considerate, but sometimes I felt like they didn’t know how to approach me.”

Patrick Manrique, D.P.T. ’11, a retired Army captain, also appreciates the support given to returning veterans by the folks back home but is similarly frustrated by some of the stereotypical assumptions he has found, which he says are often fueled by overly dramatic news reports. “The majority of soldiers who come back are not damaged goods,” says the physical therapist, who now lives in Chicago. “For those who do have problems, there are services to help them, and they handle it with grace and a lot of courage. Those of us who served overseas talk about our experiences with other veterans, but with civilians we don’t open up much. We think of it as a job we were asked to do. We did it well, and now we’re moving on with our lives.”

Like other UM students, veterans who are seeking help for emotional issues have access to the UM Counseling Center, as well as a broad range of other student services. But Gail Cole-Avent, assistant to the vice president for student affairs and university ombudsperson, says a committee is also studying whether customized services need to be created for the veteran student population. “We’re very proud that they’ve chosen UM,” she says. “We want to be part of their journey and support them in any way we can.”

Creating a veterans group for UM undergraduates was the aim of Juan Carlos Castillo, a senior at the School of Business Administration and former Marine helicopter mechanic who saw action in Iraq. “When I first came here, I was a little bit lost,” he says. “A lot of veterans tend to isolate themselves.” Castillo envisioned the group providing support and performing community service. The UM Committee on Student Organizations approved his bid for the group in November. “I wanted to get the group started before I graduate next spring,” he says, “not just for me, but for those who will come after me.”

LOOKING AHEAD 

As Manrique notes, most vets are moving on with their lives. Though currently in private practice, he plans to rejoin the service through the National Guard in his home state of Minnesota.

Kerr is back at UM and eligible to retire from the Army in three years. Agbeyegbe wants to practice law in Miami. Wagner owes the Army six years and will join the JAG Corps after he graduates and passes the bar exam.

Massey, who must still do five years of active courtroom duty for the Marine Corps after graduation, is confident that his law school contacts will lead to “excellent networking for a civilian legal career.”

And Brick, who plans to return to the Coast Guard, says an M.B.A. will keep his financial career on the rise. “In the military, to be competitive,” he notes, “you need higher education—the same as in the private sector.” 

Robert S. Benchley is a Miami-based freelance writer.

   To read expanded profiles of these and other student veterans at UM, click here.