These are just a few of the young Colby alumni who have been on the frontlines of America’s wars. While the number is relatively small, college graduates are increasingly joining the military—up dramatically just last year, according to Army officials. And those Colbians in uniform say a liberal arts education—with its emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking—is valuable training for decision making that could be literally a matter of life and death. “My Colby education taught me how to think, how to analyze, how to read and research. I used all of that, and it led to my success,” said Shagory.
They trade a culture focused on individual expression and achievement for one built on teams and a hierarchical organization. Driven by patriotism, practicality, or a need for adventure, they move from the safe haven of a small college campus to places fraught with violence and suffering. “I guess it’s a bond that you can’t really know unless you are over there,” said Rogers. “You have guys to your left and your right who you most likely wouldn’t have known before the Army. You definitely risk your life to try to save them, without question.”
Following the Vietnam War, military service became so unpopular among students that many colleges, including Colby, dropped Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs. Some Colby graduates joined during those years, but, as President William D. Adams observed, there was a general lack of interest in military service on most campuses during that period.
Adams had reason to notice. An Army veteran, he served for a year as a military advisor in Vietnam. His job was to coordinate American air and artillery support and to advise South Vietnamese forces on combat operations. In Vietnam, Adams said, “I grew up fast.”
Fast forward to 9/11, when the mood on campuses changed. “I could hear students begin to talk about things differently,” said Adams. “I could hear students thinking, talking openly, about having military careers.”
In the intervening decade some of those students have gone beyond talking. Colbians who join the military are still a distinct minority. Incomplete Colby records, based partly on self-reporting, show about 50 alumni now on active duty. Many of those serving, including those in reserve and National Guard units activated for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, do not inform the College of their military duties.
The number of new recruits in all branches of the U.S. military with two- or four-year college degrees increased last year by 17 percent. Approximately 6,400 of the total 168,000 recruits in 2009 had college degrees. Since 2001 the number of graduates of four-year colleges joining the Army each year has nearly tripled, from a little over 2,000 to more than 5,400 last year, according to Army figures.
The Army doesn’t break the numbers down by types of colleges, much less separate alumni of selective liberal arts colleges. But Colby graduates who do choose the military agree on one thing: a liberal arts education can be an advantage.