The Nonprofit Helping Veterans Get Into The Country’s Top Colleges

Bryan Box, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, is now a biological sciences major at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
AP Photo/Alaska Dispatch News, Marc Lester

As an enlisted soldier in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, Spc. Sang Ra never dreamed that he would soon be attending a college in the Ivy League.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Ra enlisted in the Army out of a sense of patriotic duty and served as a ceremonial casket bearer for fallen service members. A self-professed “poor test taker,” he had never met anyone who attended a prestigious college, but his unit executive officer recognized his potential and referred him to the nonprofit organization, Service to School. Service to School, which was founded in June 2011, provides free admissions assistance and coaching to veterans applying to college through the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Counselors at Service to School opened Ra’s eyes to the opportunities that awaited him. He didn’t have to resign himself to attending a small community college or online school; with Service to School’s help, his military experience could make him a competitive applicant for the best colleges in the country.

“First, Service to School listened to my story and analyzed my experiences, skills, and academics. They then gave me an outline of what is required for the application process; everything from transcripts to personal statements,” Ra told Task & Purpose in an interview. “They gave me a mission, and I executed. Without Service to School, I would be in a very different situation right now.”

Sang Ra (second from left) is a former enlisted soldier who now attends Columbia University in New York City after receiving admissions help from Service to School.Photo courtesy of Spc. Sang Ra

Service to School was founded by a group of veterans who realized that transitioning from service member to student successfully requires more than simply learning how the G.I Bill benefits work. While traditional high school student applicants benefit from a massive culture of college admissions counseling, including test preparation, essay advice, and interview coaching, similar advice is not as easily available for the thousands of servicemen and women transitioning out of the military each year. This puts veterans at a strategic disadvantage. As a result, very few veterans are admitted to the nation’s best schools. According to an annual survey of highly-selective colleges conducted by Bunker Hill Community College Professor Wick Sloan, only 596 out of 158,000 undergraduate students were military veterans. Instead, more and more veterans find themselves sucked into predatory for-profit colleges, earning degrees of dubious quality. Many veterans don’t even realize they could aspire to anything better.

In the summer of 2014, after months of working with Service to School counselors, Ra was accepted to Columbia University in New York City, as well as American University, George Washington University, and Amherst College.

This month, Service to School released a free, comprehensive guide to applying to college as a military veteran. The guide, written by military veterans who graduated from top schools such as Stanford and Yale, contains essay-writing advice from a Stanford creative writing professor, admissions process advice from a Yale admissions officer, and tips from a former University of Chicago law school dean of admissions, as well as well-known professional admissions consultant Anna Ivey, a co-founder of Service to School.

Service to School pairs veteran applicants with a mentor who is an active student veteran attending the schools they are targeting. This enables veterans working with the organization to get a better perspective on whether they would be a good fit for a particular school, and learn more about the school’s culture and admissions process from someone who has actually gone through it. Now at Columbia, Sang Ra hopes to expand this network on his new campus to help more veterans follow in his footsteps. This peer-to-peer mentoring has enabled the program to expand and successfully place more than 200 veterans in their target schools.

“Service to School provided me with more than just guidance. They gave me direction,” Ra said. Through the program, Ra was connected with Zach McDonald, Service to School’s director of undergraduate operations. McDonald worked with Ra “patiently and methodically” to help him develop and refine his application essays. “Then I applied, and here I am. Without Service to School, I would have missed this golden opportunity.”

Ra was among the first enlisted veterans whom Service to School’s nascent program has helped, but the nonprofit has since assisted veterans gain admission to other top schools, such as Wesleyan and Stanford universities. The program has also helped many former officers and other veterans who already have their bachelor’s degrees to successfully apply to top graduate schools.

Separating from the military can be a challenging adjustment for many veterans because it requires adaptation to a whole new set of expectations and challenges. But veterans are highly motivated and persistent in pursuing their educational goals. Ultimately, organizations such as Service to School can help level the playing field and provide the support needed by thousands of veterans around the country to find success after the military.

(U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith)

Three U.S. service members received non-life-threatening injuries after being fired on Monday by an Afghan police officer, a U.S. official confirmed.

The troops were part of a convoy in Kandahar province that came under attack by a member of the Afghan Civil Order Police, a spokesperson for Operation Resolute Support said on Monday.

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

The top leaders of a Japan-based Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornet squadron were fired after an investigation into a deadly mid-air collision last December found that poor training and an "unprofessional command climate" contributed to the crash that left six Marines dead, officials announced on Monday.

Five Marines aboard a KC-130J Super Hercules and one Marine onboard an F/A-18D Hornet were killed in the Dec. 6, 2018 collision that took place about 200 miles off the Japanese coast. Another Marine aviator who was in the Hornet survived.

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A former Army soldier was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Thursday for stealing weapons from Fort Bliss, along with other charges.

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(U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Corey Hook)

Editor's Note: This article by Richard Sisk originally appeared on, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released an alarming report Friday showing that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, with little sign that the crisis is abating despite suicide prevention being the VA's top priority.

Although the total population of veterans declined by 18% during that span of years, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually, according to the VA's 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

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