Postcards from Kal: Supporting a Military Veteran in his College Process

Postcards from Kal: Supporting a Military Veteran in his College Process

Sam Bigelow
Director of College Counseling
Middlesex School

There were so many more tourists in St. Mark’s Square at 9am in the morning than the previous night. And the late June heat, my wife and I knew we were about thirty minutes ahead of Kal who was coming from his brother’s army base by train, about an hour south of Venice, so we sought the shade, found a spot, and waited. I had spoken with Kal plenty of times, emailed with him more, and yet, now that it was time to meet him (as chance would have it, we were both in Venice, Italy, of all places, at the same time), I was really nervous.

A year prior, my father, who is a retired admissions director and college counselor, and I had signed on as Service to School Ambassadors, volunteer counselors for active military who were transitioning out of the service and hoping to enroll in college. So, thanks to the encouragement of my dad, and after a short vetting process, I was matched with Kal. He wrote me a very formal, gracious note introducing himself and sharing his Service to School profile. We set up a time to talk, he was from Austin, Texas, and I was at my mother-in-law’s in Maine. We got on the phone and the connection was scratchy. It took me no time to figure out that Kahlil was actually calling me from Kuwait, not from Austin, and he has just returned from a mission. He wanted to go to business school, didn’t know what schools beyond his in-state schools he could be competitive for, and more than anything really just needed someone to tell him he was good enough. From my perspective, he had strong testing, a great set of grades from high school and online college courses, and an incredible story to tell from his years as a Navy Medic Corpsman. He was a hero. In his eyes, Kal saw himself as a young immigrant who got in trouble in high school, wasn’t ready for college, and enlisted in the Navy to straighten himself out. One of the biggest issues I would face, I realized, was helping him see just how worthy and deserving he was.

As our relationship developed, Kahlil finally started his emails with “Hi Sam” versus “Dear Mr. Bigelow” and he signed off “Kal” instead of “Kahlil.” In a moment of gratitude, I wrote him a note on Veteran’s Day to thank him for his service and to tell him about my grandfather’s service in the Navy during World War II. He wrote back an emotional, gracious note. We were getting to know one another.

Kal’s essay writing was terrific right off the bat. He and I spoke about “just telling his story” and boy, did he succeed. So often, the hardest thing is just to tell your own story which you may think is boring, but others may find fascinating. Kal hit the ball out of the park.

When the results came in, Kal was initially rejected by a number of schools, some not terribly competitive institutions. I was worried, I had never worked with a veteran before. I thought I had let him down. Kal was cool, calm, and collected. He had a plan B…and unlike high school seniors, Kal had the life experience as a military veteran to know that this moment was not a failure or tragedy. He had earned some priceless life perspective. Ultimately, Kal was admitted to a highly selective university with a terrific community of non-traditional students, and, specifically, a good number of veterans. He was measured in his celebration (privately, I was not), but we both felt amazing.

After his active military service was done last spring, Kal went to stay with his brother in Italy and travel the world for the summer. I asked him one favor: send me a postcard. The first card I got from him was full of gracious thank you’s and descriptions of where he traveling. Subsequent postcards from all over the world streamed in from Kal and my wife, kids, and I marveled at his travels and his consistent, thoughtful communication. It meant the world to me.

When my wife and I finally spotted Kal in St. Mark’s Square (he had the red polo shirt on that he said he’d have on), he and I both immediately knew who the other one was and embraced with huge smiles. We sat and had coffee together, talked about our lives, and he thanked me at the end. I reminded him that the purpose of all of this was for me to thank him. I do think we helped each other and I can’t think of many more meaningful moments than when we said goodbye. He, my wife, and I shared hugs and tears.

While I, for the longest time, did not think there was anything I could do to help our military veterans, it took my father’s encouragement to see that all I had to do was recognize what I could bring to the table in terms of my own experience, and use it to help one person at a time.

 

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