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‘Understanding where we fit in’: Princeton’s growing veteran community spans borders

“​​I knew I wanted to go to college,” Hadi Kamara ’26 said. “Among the ways to leave home and simultaneously pursue my education, the military seemed to be the best option.”

The 22-year-old served in the United States Air Force from 2019–2022, while simultaneously enrolled in community college in his hometown of Alexandria, Va. Afterward, he enrolled at Princeton through its transfer program.

The number of veteran undergraduates has increased in recent years. There was just a single veteran in the class of 2016; as of 2021, Princeton had 26 veteran undergraduates, comprising roughly 0.5 percent of the total undergraduate student population. Princeton University is now ranked fourth in the nation among the “Best Schools for Veterans,” according to U.S. News

The increase in undergraduate veterans is partially due to the University’s reinstatement of its transfer program in 2018 after almost 30 years without it. As Dr. Keith Shaw, the University’s Director of Transfer, Veteran, and Non-Traditional Student Programs, puts it, “Scaling the [transfer] program means inviting more student veterans, more community college transfers, and more adult learners and students with families, thereby enriching Princeton with a wider range of perspectives and life experiences.”

As an active duty Airman enrolled in community college, Kamara had to balance the physical rigor and time demands of his service with the schedule of a full-time student. 

“It wasn’t uncommon for us to work 12, 13, 14-hour shifts. And then I’d have to come back home and knock out schoolwork,” Kamara explained. 

When he was deployed in Germany, a six-hour time difference made his studies more challenging.

“A class scheduled for 8 p.m. on the East Coast would be at 2 o’clock in the morning in Europe,” he said.

It was uncommon among Kamara’s unit for service members to be simultaneously enrolled in higher education. He attributes this to the highly taxing process of balancing school with the demands of his position.

“The unit was trying to push people to pursue their degrees, but I was one of the few people within my rank actively pursuing education,” Kamara recalled. “I was a Special Operations Aircraft C-130 mechanic. It’s a very time-intensive job, it takes a lot of energy. A lot of people didn’t have enough time to balance that out with school and a social life.”

Despite having already completed an associate’s degree in Business Administration and a certificate in General Education, Kamara started Princeton as a first-year.

“[The board] evaluated three credits for me, then I took FSI [Freshman Scholars Institute] over the summer, so I came in as a first-year student with four classes under my belt,” Kamara explained.

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Kamara is content with the University’s decision regarding his transfer credits.

“I think the university structure itself disincentivizes expediting the academic process,” Kamara noted. “If I were to try to graduate early, that means I’d have to write my JP [Junior Paper] earlier, which is something I wouldn’t want to jump into after only having been here for a year.” 

Veterans at Princeton expressed a variety of motivations for joining the military. 

Sam Park ’26, a 21-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, served in the Marine Corps of the South Korean military for two years. For South Korean men, service is mandatory before one turns 30.

“I don’t think I would have joined the military had it not been mandatory,” he said. 

He thinks there’s a major difference between U.S. veterans and some international veterans because of the obligatory nature of service like his.

“I think the mandatory service time for U.S. veterans is like four years and a lot of people do seven years. It’s their job, it’s an integral part of their life,” Park explained. “But for an international veteran like me, we do two to three years, but we go [to the military] because it’s mandatory. It’s not like an occupation, it’s more like an experience for us.”

23-year-old Anna Benzeevi ’26, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen from the Central Valley of California, has a different perspective on her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces. Benzeevi served as a combat soldier in Combat Intelligence, tasked with preventing drug and weapons trafficking in the Egyptian and Jordanian borders.

“I’m a Zionist, so I definitely wanted to [join the military],” Benzeevi explained. “A lot of folks that live abroad delay service until they’re too old to draft, but I wanted to do it.”

After active duty, veterans might face a re-adjustment period as they return to classes and homework.

Park was accepted into Princeton as a member of the Class of 2024, but deferred his enrollment to complete his military service, resulting in a two-year gap in his education. As Park explains, the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, specifically the Marine Corps, discourages self-study.

“It’s a cultural thing, but there’s definitely also hazing in the military. When I was a private, [my commanders] wouldn’t let me read books in the first place because the perception is that training is more important than reading books,” Park recalled. “‘You’re a soldier, you’re not here to study.’ That was the general atmosphere in the Marine Corps.”

His service was also highly time-consuming. As a sentinel in the intelligence company, he was left with little free time to study, even if he was allowed to.

“It’s a 24/7 thing because [my place of deployment] was right beneath North Korea, so I would wake up at 6:30 a.m. and watch over North Korea for like seven hours a day using surveillance devices and special cameras,” Park explained.

While Park’s time-consuming job limited his opportunity to study, he observes the ways many wealthy South Korean men get around this issue.

“A lot of Korean students who go to prestigious schools like Princeton have spent most of their childhoods in the States, or to be blunt, they’re pretty rich,” Park commented. “A lot of them can take special position offers from the military as interpreters or translators because they are less physically rigorous, and you still get to speak English and read books because you have more free time.”

Park had to transition from an English-speaking environment in high school to the military’s exclusive use of the Korean language, and then again to Princeton’s highly rigorous and English-focused curricula.

“I went to an international school in Korea, but then I went to the military and you only get to use Korean, you don’t have time to read books and self-study [in English],” Park noted. “Your academic skills get really rusty, so I had a tough time adjusting to the academic life here.”

Benzeevi also expressed the challenges of transitioning from her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces to Princeton’s academic environment.

“I haven’t been in school for five years, so to jump back into the Princeton grind was definitely something to adjust to,” Benzeevi admitted. “But a lot of us vets are mission-oriented so it’s gratifying when you get something done because it’s a challenge.”

Despite the rigorous academic demands of Princeton, Benzeevi’s goal was always to attend an Ivy League school.

“I come from a low-income background and [Ivies] are known for their good financial aid,” Benzeevi explained. “I knew it was going to be much more challenging to study here than any other sort of college, so I tried really hard to get in here.”

Benzeevi applied as a first-year undergraduate during the last six months of her service. Ultimately, she hopes to go to medical school.

“I was working on applications between missions. I really wanted to come [to Princeton] because they have so many different opportunities,” Benzeevi noted. “They have really great biology and neuroscience departments.”

University faculty like Shaw, Dr. Jordan Reed, Associate Director of the Transfer Program, and Alex Bustin ’08, Senior Associate Dean and Director of Military/Veteran Admission, are responsible for helping veterans make this difficult transition from military service to Princeton. 

“The immediate veteran community has been so supportive, so people like Dr. Shaw, Dr. Jordan Reed, Alex Bustin, have done everything in their power to make me feel welcomed here, to support the veterans on campus and help us acclimate,” Kamara noted. “If you’re somebody that, say, has particular housing accommodations that you need met, they’re the people that you go to.”

Park, on the other hand, feels less immediately supported by the University’s veteran program. Park notes that he has not interacted with University employees that work with veterans.

Benzeevi also feels somewhat disadvantaged by her status as an international veteran due to Princeton’s financial policies. 

“Princeton only allows you to record yourself as an independent if you’re 25, or you’ve enlisted in the American military, so someone like me kind of exists in the middle ground because I’m financially independent, but I’m not 25 or a U.S. vet,” Benzeevi explained. “I’m still required to bring my parents’ documents with financial aid packages, so that kind of has repercussions.”

Kamara, who speaks highly of Princeton’s veteran programs, notes that because of the size and novelty of the transfer veteran community, they go largely under-recognized as a larger part of the University.

“The transfer program is very new, so you have quite a few people at University, even at the administrative level, who don’t know that Princeton has veteran students,” Kamara commented. “I think the University is still in the process of acknowledging that our cohort of students exists.”

Benzeevi shared similar qualms to Kamara about feeling included as a veteran.

“It’s a really small community, so kind of understanding where we fit in in the big scheme of the student population is something that we’re all trying to learn,” Benzeevi said.

Despite ambivalent feelings towards the University’s support and recognition of veterans, Park, Benzeevi, and Kamara all speak optimistically of the growing nature of the veteran community at Princeton.

“The Princeton Student Veteran club is trying to bring in not just American students who enlisted in the military, but also international people,” Benzeevi added. “I know for a fact that the club is trying to do more student outreach to connect people and integrate both groups [veterans and non-veteran students].”

“It’ll be interesting to see how our relationship with the University, both the administration and the general student body, develops as our veteran population continues to grow in size,” Kamara said.

Valentina Moreno is a staff Features writer for the Prince.

Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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