On Veterans Day, Former Service Members Reflect on Amherst Experience

Friday, Nov. 11, was Veterans Day, a federal holiday that usually receives little attention on campus. For Amherst’s veterans, though, the holiday provides an important moment of recognition. The Student spoke to four students about how being a veteran impacts their experience at the college.

In terms of day-to-day life, veterans at Amherst are just like other students — academics, extracurriculars, and campus jobs are just as much a part of their daily lives. “​​You can walk through campus and no one would ever know you’re a veteran,” said Edmund Kennedy ’23, a former Crew Chief for water assault vehicles in the military.

Friday, Nov. 11, was Veterans Day, a federal holiday that often receives little attention on campus. For Amherst’s veterans, a small but tight-knit community, the holiday provides an important moment of recognition and a chance to come together.

What separates Amherst’s veterans are their experiences prior to attending Amherst, and the ways those experiences shaped who they are today. Scott Hopkins ’24E, the president of the Amherst College Military Association (ACMA), served in the Marine Corps for four years as a combat engineer, and expressed that his experiences in the military make certain aspects of college life easier. “I’ve lived on my own before, and the military gave me discipline and self-motivation. Those kinds of skills really helped me,” Hopkins said.

As president of ACMA, Hopkins works to create a sense of community among Amherst veterans, planning study sessions and meet-ups in order to bring people together. Donna Nestor ’24E, who served in the Gulf War as a combat medic, noted that although the veteran community at Amherst is small, it’s an important support system to have. “We have a small but very robust veteran military association here on campus,” Nestor said. “And we’re a pretty tight-knit group.”

Hopkins also organizes events where Amherst students can connect with and get to know veterans on campus. “Last year, we did a Veterans Day event where you could come get to know your vets,” he said. “We had food from Chipotle and invited the whole campus. We want to build bridges on campus so that people can see we are just like everybody else.”

Hopkins also noted that the stigma associated with veterans due to the depiction of soldiers in the media, especially movies, can create barriers on campus. He said that these portrayals are “not necessarily our lived experience.” Lessening the impact of this stigma, Hopkins said, is a major goal of the ACMA.  

For many veterans, going back to school after serving in the military is extremely challenging. Amherst has programs catered to outgoing veterans who want to pursue an undergraduate degree, including the Veteran Education, Transition, and Support (VETS) Mentor Program, which was introduced this year and pairs each first-semester veteran with a staff or faculty mentor with military experience.

Tianlei Zhang ’23, who served as a missile technician in the Navy, said that the college has been very helpful to him in making the transition to civilian life. “I know many other schools act like they give a shit, but it’s just lip service,” said Zhang. “Amherst luckily is not one of those.”

Besides the college’s programs for assisting veterans, Amherst’s small size has also been attractive for many veterans who chose to attend Amherst. “I wanted to learn from the best and get hands-on direct learning, not some recording in a giant classroom where I’m one of 100,” said Hopkins.

Zhang expressed a similar sentiment, emphasizing that “there are many more opportunities to build long-lasting relations [at Amherst] compared to bigger universities.”

While the disciplinary skills learned in the military can be helpful in an education setting, other aspects of the transition to the classroom are challenging for many veterans. The difference in lifestyle between the military and college makes adjusting to Amherst difficult. “I was taught a certain way to live in the military and then college is totally different, so it’s almost like leaving home for a second time,” Hopkins said. “You have to learn everything [all] over again.”

“Nobody will understand some of the baggage you are going through as a veteran unless they are fellow veterans,” Zhang said. Fortunately, Zhang added, ACMA helps smoothen this transition by providing a community for veterans on campus.

On Friday, to celebrate Veterans Day, Amherst’s veterans were invited to have dinner with President Michael Elliott. However, some veterans wished there had been more events on campus for Veterans Day. “I think it would have been nice to have something more campus-wide, that involve[d] students and brought a little bit more awareness to military service,” Nestor said. “There’s such a long history of soldiers not being honored for the sacrifices we make.”

Other veterans expressed less interest in celebrating the holiday. “Each veteran has different opinions about this, but for me, it was a job I had once — nothing more,” said Kennedy. “I think the United States likes the idea of Veterans Day more than most veterans I know personally.”

According to Zhang, however, the holiday provides a valuable opportunity to recognize the persisting challenges that soldiers face even after coming home. “Twenty-four veterans kill themselves every day, which is a lot more than those who die in combat,” he said. “So [Veterans Day] is a day to bring awareness to veterans’ continued struggles and try to address those problems, so fewer of us end up taking our own lives.”

Correction, Nov. 16, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated the date of Veterans Day to be Oct. 11. It is Nov. 11.