I had no idea where to go. I had studied at Harvard previously and did quite well. Some of my fondest memories are with the professors and students out in Harvard Yard. In my last semester there however, I was told, “Volunteering to serve in Afghanistan” was not a proper reason to withdraw and I received failing grades instead. I couldn’t go back.
For six months straight, my life dwindled further into despair. I had lost what I loved. Not the war—lord knows I had no great love of that—but serving along my brothers and sisters in arms, these were bonds that would never die.
Along the way I was introduced to art and writing therapy. Little did I know at the time that this would become a pivotal moment in my life. Art and writing would be stepping-stones back to an old love.
After healing up a bit, both mentally and physically, I ventured further back into my artsy roots and, with some encouragement, took a class in acting at George Washington University. This very basic class would reach further into my future than I could ever have imagined. It awakened the acting bug inside me. I loved it! I had been a techy in high school and was deeply involved in theatre. I had not done much acting, though I had toyed with the idea and had done bit parts throughout my military career. This, I decided, was what I would do. I was going to be an actor. But how?
Two very good friends at Walter Reed Medical Center heard of my passion and abilities and nominated me for a scholarship through the Posse Foundation. A full ride to some small place called Vassar… “Vassar, what’s a Vassar?” I asked. I should have known better. I heard things like “liberal arts school”, “small town”, “little ivies”, et cetera, and I had grown wary of anything with the word “Ivy” attached to it. Then I heard Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Jackie Kennedy, and Lisa Kudrow. I heard of the Power House Theatre, Cushing, and the Butterbeer Brewers… It did not take any convincing after that; in fact Vassar turned out to be my dream school.
The nomination process was intense. We submitted all kinds of documents, more than was required for the normal college application. Everything from grades to the Common App, and test scores of course, but also military records, Wars we had fought in, medals, and recommendations from professors, commanding officers and generals. But this was just the beginning.
Over the course of several months we began the interview process, competing against hundreds of veterans for ten spots. The first interview was a group interview. We did this in groups of ten, and often joked that they should just pick our ten together since we all like each other. It was not to be. We participated in all sorts of mock classroom scenarios and leadership exercises to see not only who would stand out, but who could stand together. The Posse Foundation, after all, sends teams of students to college as a support network. In this case however, they were going to deploy a squad of veterans onto a college campus.
The second interview for those of us who were so fortunate was in person—two Posse advisors and myself. This one was rather relaxed, even though I was wearing a suit and tie, as ordered by my command; first impressions are everything to Marines. One of their biggest concerns was if I would fit in as I looked so natural dressed up. That, I assured them would not be a problem, at least not once I’ve grown my hair out. I’ve always had a young heart and a free spirit, often being called the hippie of the Marine Corps.
Then the wait—only twenty of us would make it to the finalist interviews. Then the mystery. Along the way I was sent an email from vassar.edu. No name, just Vassar. To this day I do not know who sent the email. The author invited me to two events. The first was an open house at a local private girls’ school where Vassar alumnae/i came to speak to prospective students. If ever I had been out of place, this was it. I got quite a few stern looks from the fathers present in the room.
The second event was for the Vassar Film Festival in Washington, D.C. There, I met many more alums and saw some wonderful films. I also met Ryan Hart and Catherine Lunn of the Vassar Alumnae House. After telling me all about Vassar, they invited me up for a tour.
Vassar had far more in store for me, however. I was put up in the Alumnae House for two nights and my meals were covered. An itinerary was left at the front desk, and it was a full schedule! The tour came first. The moment I stepped on the Vassar grounds I felt like I had returned home for the first time since I left for Iraq all those years ago. Everyone was so welcoming. I met with President Hill and Deans Lotto and Borus! I was rather unprepared for all this. After the meeting, I was introduced to Professor Darrel James, and he gave me a tour of the theatre department. Turns out my professor at GWU had been Prof. James’ as well. She had also written my recommendations for Vassar—small world. For the last item on my agenda, I got to sit in on a lecture with President Richard Nixon’s Ambassador to China. Indeed this was all a whirlwind experience. The next morning I topped it off with a breakfast at Babycakes—delicious.
It was still a few weeks until I found out I was to be a finalist. Posse helped all of us prepare after they told us. The last interview was another group interview, and there were twenty-five vets, not twenty! Our hearts sank at the now steeper competition. President Hill and all the Deans were present. Anxiety was high, but we carried on. I was one of the last to leave, helping to clean up the trash left behind, but was quickly hurried out. I left thinking I didn’t stand a chance; that I must have offended someone at Vassar. I refused to answer my family’s calls. Though it was a brisk December night, and I had no jacket, I decided to walk around Manhattan in the hopes that it would cheer me up. Suddenly I got a call. On the other end was President Hill, and she said the most welcoming words I had ever heard: “How would you like to come to our campus this fall?” I was in! I couldn’t believe it. I started dancing in Times Square and everyone looked at me crazy but I didn’t care. I danced like a fool and even ended up on the jumbotron.
In January our families were invited up for the scholarship awards ceremony. We each received our acceptance letter to Vassar and a white rose. In the end eleven veterans were chosen, from four branches of service; three women and eight men. All endured great struggles during their unique journeys. All were given a new hope. A new home. A home called Vassar.
—Jack Daniel Eubanks is a member of the inaugural class of Vassar Posse Scholars.