Like every other member of the Class of 2020, Brian Lepak arrived on campus for orientation on Aug. 22. Originating from Newport News, VA, Lepak acts just like many other Vassar freshmen. He’s ambitious, driven, interested in student government, plays sports and sometimes doesn’t love the food in the Deece.
What sets Lepak apart, however, is that at age 27, he is almost 10 years older than his fellow first years. While his peers are fresh off of puberty, prom, high school graduation and living with their parents, Lepak has spent the last two years living in DC, and before that, five years in the Marine Corps, serving two tours in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Despite his added experiences prior to Vassar, Lepak declares that he feels at home already. “I went to convocation, serenading and other first year activities to make a statement that I’m not any different than the traditional first-year student,” Lepak said. “The age gap is noticeable, but students don’t really give it much attention. Everyone is very accepting for who you are. Students respect your experiences and really put forth an effort to make you feel safe and welcomed.”
Lepak is one of seven freshmen at Vassar in this year’s Veterans Posse Program, an initiative to increase the rates at which veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces attend and graduate from selective colleges and universities. To study at Vassar, vets must go through the regular application process. Admitted students are awarded a full scholarship with a combination of Vassar financial aid and benefits from the GI Bill.
Since the program’s launch in 2013, Vassar has gone a long way. “We all were learning about this population and their needs at the same time we were adjusting/reacting to things like child-care, the VA medical system, the VA benefit system, etc. It has been a learning experience for all of us,” stated Registrar and Veteran Adviser, Colleen R. Mallet. Now, Vassar has become part of the Veterans Committee Consortium consisting of several Hudson Valley colleges, meeting monthly to discuss and improve services and programs for Posse students on and off campus.
For Lepak, his path to Vassar began with a flyer. “I saw a flyer for the interview at my community college and applied,” Lepak said. “I had the choice between Vassar, Wesleyan and Dartmouth. I picked Vassar as my first choice because of the small curriculum requirements and the opportunity to explore different subjects and topics.”
And that decision still stands true. Since matriculating, Lepak was elected to the Judicial Board for the Class of 2020 and is also a walk-on student-athlete for the baseball team.
“I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be a Vassar student. Seriously, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” Lepak said. “For the first time in my life I feel comfortable being myself. I can’t speak for all veterans, but I can say for me, Vassar is a great place for veterans,”
Gino Ruiz ’19 has already settled in to Vassar and now finds humor in the differences between him and his classmates. “They don’t get my movie or TV references,” Ruiz chuckled when talking about his younger Vassar peers. “I am a legit ’90s baby. Not many students remember the first ‘Power Rangers.’ Also, I had to learn a few new slang words. ‘Harry Potter’ is super big here where I never got into it. I once asked someone what a Dementor was and she had the face like, ‘What are you, a loser?’ Times change.”
Ruiz was raised in the inner-city neighborhoods of New York City and grew up in poverty. His mother worked under-the-table odd jobs and collected Social Security and food stamps, while Ruiz attended overcrowded, underfunded and violent high schools. “Just getting through the day was an ordeal of not getting into situations with bullies, gangs and sometimes being stopped by the police to be asked where I was coming from.”
After high school, Ruiz enrolled in the military to move away from his environment and support himself and his family. He was a rifleman. “Shoot, move and communicate,” Ruiz said was his job in the army. “I never thought that I–from NYC– would be essentially learning how to kick down doors and throw grenades at targets. I only ever met three New Yorkers in my whole fours years in the infantry, typically a lot of guys from Ohio and other southern states who would join the job.”
After leaving the military, Ruiz went back to New York and couch-surfed with a friend. He then moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn and worked night jobs. That’s when Ruiz found out about the Posse program. “What brought me to Vassar is an opportunity to leave my old life and end this cycle where my family did not find success,” Ruiz said. “I want to shed my past self. I know I am not this military guy, never really was, I’d enjoyed the perks of adventure and living on my own and exploring myself within the constraints of military life.”
Ruiz said at first he struggled adjusting socially, but is working to find his way.
“I had this chip on my shoulder at the beginning of my freshman year. I was not sure how this small liberal arts college life would work so I just incorporated the social aspects I already knew from the military and living as an ‘adult’ in Brooklyn,” Ruiz said. “I always drifted through life, meet people for a short time and then be off. This new aspect of creating and maintaining relationships is new for me. I am not unhappy with my life here, just a little lost and confused on navigating the scene. I meet plenty of people who are really unique and cool.”
Ruiz added that he is very grateful for Vassar’s Posse Program. “I am thankful that they picked me, I never won anything so grand in my life before. A national scholarship, to a good school, I never would have thought this is where my life would end up,” Ruiz said. “I think Vassar is as good as it gets, not many other schools, especially private schools have open their doors to our demographic in such a welcoming way. We tried to pay that back by being good students who are getting involved on campus in a meaningful way.”
John Daniel Eubanks ’16 has already shown the ways Posse students succeed after Vassar. Last year, Eubanks became the first Vassar Posse graduate after finishing his undergrad degree in three years using transfer credits. Since then, Eubanks has remained in the Poughkeepsie area, currently acting in an all-veteran production of Comedy of Errors, as well as working on building an organic farm close to Vassar with the hopes to donate the food produced to local homeless shelters and veterans’ nursing homes.
Eubanks spent nine years in the Marines, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and about a dozen other countries. While in the Marines Eubanks continued to work towards his degree, and had attended a dozen schools before Vassar.
“Vassar is the longest I stayed in one place in more than a decade,” Eubanks said. “It gave me a home after the war, a place to transition back to civilian life, and will always remain my home.”