Back to School: Nolan Scholarship brings veterans to the Johnson School
By Sharon Tregaskis
Even before she could tie her shoes, Kima McCoy knew she was an American citizen — by birth. Teachers would try to tell their pint-sized pupil she must have been naturalized — she'd been born in South Korea, after all, to a Korean mother. But McCoy's parents had made a point of inculcating in their daughter a profound patriotism and pride for her U.S. Air Force father's native land and the citizenship that conveyed through his military service. When it came time for college, McCoy matriculated at the Air Force Academy, launching a military career of her own that has yielded two tours of duty in Afghanistan. This winter, the first-year MBA student will begin a third tour, in Iraq. "This isn't me serving out a prior commitment,' says the thirty-year-old, who will deploy with the 152 Air Operations Group, an Air Guard unit based in Syracuse, NY. "This is a conscious choice I make because I like being a citizen soldier. It's part of my long-term life plan to have a civilian career and serve in a part-time capacity."
Veterans and active service members bring powerful leadership insights and maturity to the Johnson School's student body, says director of admissions Randall Sawyer, who recruits at West Point, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy, among other venues. "Our recruiters love our military men and women for the same reason we do," says Sawyer, whose own father attended college through the GI Bill. "It's a lot of raw talent. They get molded by our immersion culture — which is different from the military — and then they make their way into companies where recruiters know exactly what they're getting: That person will stay at their desk until the work is done. They know how to take direction and lead teams and they apply their experience in the military to the workplace."
This year, Sawyer's recruitment efforts got a boost from a $1 million gift from Stephanie and Peter Nolan '80, MBA '82. "It's repaying a debt of gratitude for people's service to the country," says Nolan, a managing partner at the private equity firm Leonard Green Partners in Los Angeles, CA. "I used to be in investment banking and the people we hired who were ex-military were outstanding employees. I thought that Cornell would benefit from that."
The Johnson School isn't the only business school that's recognized the benefit of enrolling former military personnel, and some offer very attractive support. Sawyer expects the Nolan scholarship to yield enormous dividends at Cornell. "This gift gives us a great competitive edge," he says. "It's not an endowment—it's a scholarship, so I can match an offer, or make coming here a very easy decision. Every little bit reduces their debt and they're able to get on their feet more quickly when they get out of school."
For McCoy, one of the first Nolan Scholars, the award was part of a larger package that made the Johnson School the right place for her. "I visited the Johnson School and fell in love," she says. "At the other schools, there would be one veteran who reached out. Here, they have an armada." First-year student Steve Maddox, a former Marine who spent nearly a decade in intelligence stationed in Latin America, at the Pentagon, and in Iraq, serves as president of the Johnson School's Veterans Club, a group that made a big difference in his own enrollment decision. "My boss graduated from the Naval Academy and the Army War College," says the thirty-year-old. "What does he know about MBA programs? The veterans here were really the clincher. The money leaving these top 15 schools is all the same, the curriculums are on par, so at the end of the day it's the people. The Veterans Club here made the decision easy, in terms of who I wanted to associate with."
Beyond their support for one another, veterans bring a unique facet to the entire Johnson School student body, says club advisor Bill Huling '68, MBA '74, a retired lieutenant colonel whose Army career included a tour of duty in Vietnam and three years as an ROTC assistant professor of military science at Cornell. "They've had extensive responsibility," says Huling, who interviews all of the school's military applicants, translating their service records and credentials for the Johnson School's admissions committee. "Veterans bring tremendous maturity, and calmness," he says. "When you've been in combat and had all those intense emotions and pressures and you come to the Johnson School, it's totally different. No one's shooting at you. Veterans come in here and say, 'Pile it on. I can handle it.'
While most vets have extensive leadership and team experience, few possess the functional skills in finance and accounting their counterparts with a few years' experience in the business world bring to classes. "I tell our veterans, 'Don't feel you're not worthy to sit down at the table,'" says Huling. "'You've managed a budget, you have moved organizations of men and equipment in intense environments — you just haven't gotten into the techniques of derivatives and accounting and other business skills. That will come.'" Maddox says much of his military experience has been relevant to the classroom, with a twist. "It's not a one-for-one thing," he says. "How was I able to sell my unit's mission to commanders and how was I able to get buy-off on my ideas?"
For Manhattan-based investment banker Griff Norquist, MBA '03, the Johnson School was a perfect place to build on his field artillery training and service in Korea and the 82nd Airborne Division. "Veterans really need to be able to bone up on the finance and accounting and the Johnson School is a great place for that," says the thirty-four-year-old West Point graduate. "The immersion at Cornell allows veterans to get up to speed as career-changers. That first-year deep dive into a subject matter is good for any career changer, but that was especially true for me. I went into my internship with four or five accounting courses, versus the one I would have had at other schools."
When her deployment orders came through from the Air National Guard this fall, McCoy opted to take a leave of absence, rather than finish the semester. After her tour in Iraq, she'll return to campus and resume her studies again as a member of the Class of 2011. Johnson School administrators processed her request to withdraw in only a few days, canceling her loans and making it easy for McCoy to head straight to Florida, where she began special training. "It makes me know I picked the right school, because they were so supportive," she says. "This is a time when I can contribute. When I'm old and grey, I won't regret graduating with the class of 2011, and I will always remember that when the Air Force asked, I said yes, that there was a need and I stepped up."
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