Believe it or not, the point of these “angry veteran goes to college” posts is not to tell war stories about nubile co-eds. Mostly anyway. Actually, I hope other veterans will read this and will be able to take some of these things into consideration when they get out of the military. I graduated from Columbia with a degree in political science. Other veterans I knew at Columbia majored in finance, computer science, and ancient history, but it seemed like a lot of us were in the political science department in one shape or form.
What follows is my individual experience. Your mileage may vary, so take it for what it may or may not be worth. I’m not trying to sell you on going to college after leaving the Army—that’s your call to make.
When I transferred into Columbia, it was kind of like starting college over again. The academic standards were higher (and rightly so, because the standards are disgustingly low in many schools) but you adapt to that quickly. Most of the classes were good, but heavy on the theory side. In the political science department, I spent a lot of time talking about Machiavelli, the prisoner’s dilemma, regime types, failed states, international institutions, urbanization, and a lot of other stuff that I’ve already forgotten.
When I showed up at school, I still had the typical Ranger mentality, thinking that everything had to be done 100 percent and then some. I was used to getting straight A’s in my first college, so why not? Well, let me explain something about Columbia University. You will take four or five courses a semester, and each class will assign you over a 100 pages to read a week. You will be told to read entire books each week; in literature class, these books are routinely 500-700 pages long. That’s on top of the white papers and book excerpts you have for your east asian political-economy class, and nuclear physics textbook you have to read for the class on weapons of mass destruction. Now, fit your exams and the papers you have to write in there somewhere. Trying to be the strong Ranger isn’t going to work in this situation; you need to be the smart Ranger.
The smart Ranger sits in class and looks to his left and right. What he sees is a 19-year-old undergrad who seems to breeze right through his schoolwork while you are struggling to figure out how to use statistics programs like “R,” and are pounding Google hardcore trying to find out how democracy came to Italy for a paper due the next day. Said undergrad knows all the tricks and knows how to game the system.
Remember in Ranger School when you had to dig your hasty fighting position at the perimeter of the patrol base? You were a Ranger Battalion private, so the West Pointers made you the M240 gunner, assistant gunner, or ammo bearer every day. You had your basic load of ammunition that you carried around all day and all night. One morning, the Ranger instructors came into the patrol base and issued another entire basic load of ammunition, even though you never asked for it and only expended a few belts the previous day on the mission.
Pop quiz, hot shot: what do you do? Dump that extra ammo in your hasty fighting position and fill that fucker in with dirt before you leave the patrol base? You bet your ass I did.
This is what that undergrad can teach you about college. Game the system. Read only what you need to pass your class, ignore the rest. It isn’t cheating; this is realistically what you have to do in order to pass your classes, because the professors place an emphasis on bulk. They assign you way more material than you could ever realistically read. Add having a family and a part-time job on top of school, and you can forget about it.
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(The opening photo is about two-thirds of the readings for one class I took. There are several books and chapters from books missing in the photo.)
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