When Brett McKnight arrived at Syracuse University he wasn’t a typical first-year student. A veteran who served as a Reconnaissance Marine in the 2 nd Recon Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he had been deployed twice and attended rigorous military courses like combatant diver, military free-fall, trauma management and more.
McKnight’s service record wouldn’t have surprised anyone who knew him. Growing up in Syracuse, he’d search the shelves in the library for stories about the military. He wanted to join after high school but was persuaded to give college a try first. In February 2012, after one semester at Paul Smith’s College , McKnight enlisted in the Marine Corps .
“I felt that the normal path to college wasn’t challenging me in the way I needed,” he says. “I wanted to fight for a cause greater than my own–something I could be proud of that would impact other people’s lives.”
McKnight was deployed with a Marine Recon unit–a small, tight-knit group that sometimes operates behind enemy lines. These six- to eight-month deployments took him to three continents. When they ended he returned to Camp Lejeune and honed his leadership skills directing and mentoring 52 Recon Marines in preparation for real-world operations.
Embracing New Opportunities
So what makes someone with a lifelong interest in the military transition to civilian life?
“I was selected for Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to become a Marine Raider, but the commitment was for six more years,” McKnight says. He’d served as team medic on his last deployment, and that piqued his interest in pursuing a medical career. “MARSOC could not provide that, so with two weeks left on my contract I decided to forfeit my slot and left the Marines.”
Just after this momentous decision, McKnight was contacted by Dan Piston, a program evaluation manager with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. Already headed back to Syracuse, McKnight agreed to an informational meeting and learned what Syracuse could offer a veteran considering a degree in medicine.
McKnight was admitted to Syracuse and prepared to face a new challenge–transitioning from the military back to the classroom.
Promising Options for the Future
I hadn’t taken a college course in six years, but it’s been very manageable thanks to the support I’ve gotten from the SU community.
“I hadn’t taken a college course in six years, but it’s been very manageable thanks to the support I’ve gotten from the SU community,” he says. In each of his first two semesters at Syracuse University, McKnight has earned a 4.0 GPA. He is majoring in biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and keeping his future options open. “I have a goal of continuing on to medical or physician assistant school, but haven’t decided which would be a better choice for me,” he says.
As a veteran, the educational benefits McKnight earned through his years of service have been extremely beneficial in financing his studies at Syracuse. He uses his Yellow Ribbon benefit , a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that allows participating higher-cost institutions to partner with the Veterans Administration to cover tuition costs for eligible veterans. “The GI Bill gave me this opportunity, and I’m very focused on succeeding,” he says.
McKnight found it easy to form friendships with other student veterans at Syracuse, one of whom is a former Reconnaissance Marine now heading to medical school. Gradually, he connected with non-veterans too, and it’s been personally rewarding. “I am different from most students on campus because of my age and background, but I enjoy being a part of this community,” he says.