Education and Experience: Speaks to a Military Veteran At Harvard Law

Jan 02, 2019

Graham Philips is a law student at Harvard University with a bachelor's degree from Princeton, but he took an unusual route to get from college to law school: military service. Read on to learn how both academia and the military have enriched this young veteran's life.

By Megan Driscoll

Graham Philips You were an undergraduate at Princeton with no military background when you decided to enlist. Can you tell us what inspired you to join the service?

Graham Philips: A combination of two things planted the seed in my head. First, I was feeling academically burned out as I headed into my final undergraduate year, so I had the desire to do something totally different - something totally unlike spending all of my time reading, studying and writing. Second, I became intensely curious about the war in Iraq and what it was really like. I came to think that I would only understand it if I had some firsthand military experience. Once that combination put the idea in my head, I couldn't get it out. I felt that if I didn't give it a try, I'd always be left wondering if I should have.

E-P: By the time you started basic training you had a degree from Princeton, an unusual accomplishment for most people, and even more so for enlisted members of the service. In what ways did this affect your experience of settling into military life?

GP: My background did make me stand out, which had the potential to be both good and bad. There was a decent amount of ribbing about my education; I heard variations of 'Guess you didn't learn that at Princeton!' any number of times. Sometimes that was just good-natured joking (and pretty mild as far as the Army goes), which I didn't mind. But sometimes I felt there was an edge to it, that the person assumed I was arrogant and was trying preemptively to knock me down a peg. That bothered me because the whole reason I decided to enlist was that I didn't think I had any special experience or knowledge about being a soldier. Still, that wasn't a big problem. I think most people looked at my education and assumed I was competent, or at least gave me the opportunity to show it. And leaders seemed very confident that I could handle paperwork!

E-P: You had a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq, starting in 2007. Can you tell us what that experience was like and how, if at all, your years in college prepared you for it?

GP: My regiment, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, deployed to Iraq in August 2007. I was a Stryker vehicle commander and was attached to our Squadron's Reconnaissance Platoon. We operated in several neighborhoods in Baghdad. Our missions were primarily house-to-house search operations, providing security for construction projects and conducting surveillance in areas of suspected insurgent activity. If I had to sum it up in one word, I'd actually have to pick 'boring.' We very rarely had any excitement. But that's not a bad thing, given the nature of the kind of excitement one finds in a war zone. The few times I came under fire were quite enough. I feel quite lucky to have gone through 14 months of on the street patrolling without experiencing anything truly traumatic and without losing any friends.

I'm not sure that my education shaped my experience of the deployment in many significant ways. I probably had a greater sense of the history and politics surrounding the war than did many of my fellow soldiers, but I can't say that seemed very relevant on a day-to-day basis. My love of reading, which is certainly related to my education, served me well, since there wasn't always much else to do with our free time.

E-P: Had you already decided to go to law school before enlisting? If not, how did you decide to join the legal profession?

GP: I had not decided on law school. In fact, I'd never even really considered it. My curiosity about law only started to grow in the last few months of my time in the Army. While home on leave from Iraq, in August 2008, I read a book called The Dark Side by Jane Mayer that made me think about the legal dimension of the War on Terror. My dad lent me another book, Terror and Consent by Philip Bobbitt, that further explored the relationship between law and national security. I read that during my last month in Iraq. So my interest in the law grew out of my interest (and participation) in national security. But the scope of my legal interest has expanded significantly since. I still think national security law is fascinating, but I'm not sure that's the area I'd like to pursue professionally.

E-P: Your biography notes that you applied to Harvard Law School because of its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Can you describe this program for our readers?

GP: The Yellow Ribbon Program is part of the new Post-9/11 G. I. Bill. Individual schools can choose to provide additional funding beyond what the G.I. Bill already covers and the Veterans Administration will match those funds. So a given college might have, say, 20 slots that provide $5,000. A veteran who gets one of those slots (I think they're generally first come, first serve) will have his tuition lowered by an additional $10,000: $5,000 from the school and $5,000 from the V.A. As with the regular G.I. Bill benefits, that money goes directly to the school. The V.A.'s website has a map that provides state by state listings of participating institutions and the amounts of funding available.

The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is in itself a massive improvement over the old G.I. Bill, but the Yellow Ribbon Program makes it even better. The Yellow Ribbon Program suddenly puts many expensive private institutions within the financial reach of the average veteran. I strongly encourage veterans to look into it and consider its implications when choosing schools.

graham philips

E-P: What other aspects of Harvard Law attracted you, both as an individual and as a military veteran?

GP: First and foremost are the quality of the education and the opportunities it brings. Regardless of what area of law I go into, I think having gone to Harvard Law School will only help.

As an individual, going to school in Cambridge, MA, appealed. I grew up in central Massachusetts, and my parents now live northwest of Boston, an easy commuter-train ride away. I didn't get to see my parents very often during my time in the military, so it's nice to be able to see them more frequently. I also have several friends from high school who live in the Boston area, and a few college friends (including my old roommate) who are graduate students at Harvard.

I've felt very welcome as a veteran. I think Harvard and other elite universities get portrayed as anti-military, largely due to the absence of ROTC programs and, in response to 'don't ask, don't tell,' an unwillingness to support on-campus recruiting. But whatever institutional tensions may exist, I think the staff, faculty and students treat veterans extremely well. Harvard Law School participates very generously in the Yellow Ribbon Program, and every year on Veterans Day the dean hosts a special dinner for student veterans. I hope that the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' will usher in even closer ties between Harvard and the military.

E-P: You're currently in your first year at Harvard Law. What has that been like, and how has your military background influenced your experience as a law student?

GP: Law school is more focused and demanding than college, but I like that. The classes are large but interactive; professors call people at random and expect you to know the material and be able to analyze it on the spot. I like the logical rigor that's required. I don't like the fact that one's entire grade usually rests on a single exam, but I'm willing to take the good with the bad.

I think my military background has been useful primarily in helping me maintain a proper sense of perspective. School can be stressful, but it's not life and death. I get enough sleep; I have a good amount of free time; I don't have to worry about my own or any subordinates' safety. I think about friends in the Army, some in Iraq and Afghanistan, and realize that I have it pretty good, finals pressure notwithstanding.

E-P: What type or area of law are you interested in practicing after you graduate?

GP: I wish I knew! Or I wish I was certain. I lean towards some kind of government service, either state or federal. I'd really like to be part of an organization that's doing important public service work, but I can see many jobs that could meet that criteria: criminal prosecution, civil enforcement of labor laws, consumer protection law, investigating government fraud. I hope over the next few years to try out some of those areas of practice to get a better sense of what I'd be good at and enjoy.

E-P: Many of our readers are military veterans considering higher education. What advice would you give to someone in this position?

GP: I would encourage all veterans to seek out some form of higher education. Given the benefits you've earned as a veteran, you'd be crazy not to. But at the same time I'd urge some caution. First, don't feel compelled to start school the minute you get out of the military (or at any particular point during military service). Education is largely what you make of it, so don't start until you yourself feel motivated to begin. Unlike in the military, in college you can't count on someone else to motivate you, to push you, to make sure you keep up. By and large, no one will force you to go to class or get mad at you if you don't; but what's the point of even being in school if you don't undertake the work? For this reason I'd urge veterans to make sure they are genuinely eager to start school, and not go simply because they feel they ought to.

A second note of caution: if the ads that pop up on my Facebook account are any indicator, there are a lot of for-profit colleges that market themselves toward military personnel. Veterans, after all, bring guaranteed G.I. Bill tuition payments. I think veterans need to be careful to research schools carefully. As with any kind of product or service, don't take all the advertising at face value. Make sure to verify schools' accreditations, talk to current students and alumni, look at third-party evaluations (e.g., U.S. News and World Report). Your G.I. Bill is one of the most valuable things the military gives you, so make sure you invest it wisely.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your academic and military experiences and how these have worked together to influence each other and your life.

GP: For me, academia and the military have provided two very different types of satisfaction. Success in the military surely requires intelligence, but my military experience didn't involve the emphasis on ideas, abstract concepts and theory that I find and enjoy in academic life. On the other hand, the military provided physical challenges - both in terms of physical fitness and also the ability to operate, repair and maintain weapons and vehicles - like I've never experienced elsewhere, and which were deeply rewarding. The military also involves a much greater degree of teamwork than does academic life. Students and scholars obviously do sometimes collaborate, but most of my time in school has been spent working on individual papers and projects. Both methods of working have their advantages and pleasures. I'd say I'm happy that I've found academia and the military so different, because as a consequence I feel like I've had a much broader range of experiences.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?