By Caroline J. Hanna

Amherst is actively recruiting veterans. What’s it like to go to college after serving in uniform?

Craig Velozo ’16 was serving in Baghdad on March 18, 2010, when his forward operating base came under rocket fire. As the attack unfolded, he raced to help an injured soldier. That man survived, but Velozo could do little for another soldier, who died as the result of his wounds.

Velozo pauses when asked to describe his career as a U.S. Army medic. The ability to treat the wounded made the job worthwhile, says the soft-spoken 29-year-old, whose hair is sprinkled with gray at the temples. “I like the instant reward of helping people. There’s nothing like it.”

Craig Velozo ’16

These days Velozo (left) is an Amherst English major and a member of the active reserve. He hopes to graduate with the grades and pre-med coursework necessary for admission to the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School. He wants to return to active duty as a doctor.  

“I’ll admit that it was a little hard going from ‘Sgt. Velozo’ to just ‘Craig,’” he says. “But I look at my being at Amherst as a way to get more training.”

Velozo is the only active soldier on campus this year, but he’s not the only veteran. Thanks to efforts of the Office of Admission, there are seven others now enrolled—the most in recent memory. While it is relatively common to find veterans at community colleges and large public universities, it’s unusual to find so many at a liberal arts school like Amherst. (Wesleyan and Vassar are exceptions; they recently pledged to admit 10 vets per year.) 

These eight men (no female vets have yet enrolled) represent the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. Several served in intelligence and learned foreign languages—such as Dari. One served in the Army infantry.

Though each enlisted for different reasons, their stories have common themes. A few mention poor grades in high school, which left them feeling the military was their only option. Some describe a desire to better themselves through service.

From left: David Smisson ’15, who served in the  Air Force; former Marine Joseph Prive ’15; and Air Force vets Jeremy Jordan ’15 and Jason Premo ’16

From left: David Smisson ’15, who served in the  Air Force; former Marine Joseph Prive ’15; and Air Force vets Jeremy Jordan ’15 and Jason Premo ’16

Asked what it’s like to be a fully formed adult living in a dorm room, Jason Premo ’16 answered, with a laugh: “I lived in a broom closet with another guy on base. I think I can handle living in a dorm.” Finding students like Premo is part of Amherst’s effort to boost diversity in all its forms.

“With a growing veteran population in the country, we’re eager to welcome their voices and perspectives,” says Dean of Admission Katharine Fretwell ’81. “Their experiences and worldviews add a unique dimension to the community’s diversity, especially at a time when issues regarding global politics and economies dominate the news.”

Her office has recruited veterans through, among other measures, direct-mailing former soldiers with high GPAs, sending a college admission representative to a Marine Corps air station and participating in a virtual military college fair.

Professor Ronald Tiersky had three vets in his “Culture and Politics in 20th-Century Europe” course last fall. “The vets sometimes will speak out of their experience, even if only indirectly,” he says. “What they have to say about the battlefield, danger of death, fear, courage and comradeship is irreplaceable.”

Jared Price ’14 (right) and Michael Zeigbo Chioke ’15

Peter Jody ’14, a nonveteran, recalls a dinner at which another nonveteran, sitting between two former soldiers, outlined “this grand theory of what America should do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They demolished this kid—which was hilarious to watch, but also super educational for me, because I don’t know much about Afghanistan and Pakistan either.”

The G.I. Bill covers much of the students’ tuition and fees; the remainder is split by the government and Amherst under the Yellow Ribbon Program. About a third of the college’s portion comes from endowed funds for veterans.

“Initially, I was extremely nervous about my ability to fit in and excel academically, as I was coming from a not-so-stellar high school background,” says Joe Prive ’15, a former Marine. “But everyone from the faculty on down has been truly helpful.” His future goals include advocating for improved access to top colleges for other enlisted vets.

Jared Price ’14 (right) and Michael Zeigbo Chioke ’15. Not pictured is Spencer Brooks ’14.

Photos by Rob Mattson