Not your typical gap year …

When Michael Richter was assigned to Calhoun College, he didn’t immediately pull out his laptop and start joining Facebook groups like “Dontcha Wish Your Master Was HOT Like Ours.” He never logged onto the admitted students Web site to broadcast his favorite works of literature, and when the time came, he didn’t e-mail for a HounSib.

Richter isn’t a technophobe or some jaded hipster undergrad; he’s an adult. Arriving at Yale with an Olympic silver medal for ice hockey, 15 years of professional play with the New York Rangers — and a wife — Michael was different from other freshmen. But as a member of Yale’s Eli Whitney Students Program, Richter took the same courses as any undergraduate.

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Created in 1982 for people who do not complete college at the typical age, the Eli Whitney Program admits only eight to 12 people annually. Unlike other non-traditional student programs such as Harvard’s Extension School or Columbia’s School of General Studies, Eli Whitney students are enrolled exclusively in Yale College. Eli Whitney students don’t live on campus; but other than that, they do the same problem sets, write the same papers and earn the same bachelor’s degrees.

Still, in some ways, Eli Whitneys have an advantage over teens and 20-somethings. As professor Charles Bailyn, chair of the Eli Whitney Student Advisory Committee, says on the program’s promotional video, “These students add something to the Yale community — the kind of life experience and perspective that no one coming out of high school, no matter how remarkable, can really offer.”

Sure, you felt like an adult living on the Hill doing that internship last summer, but you can’t beat giving the 2008 plenary address at the International Conference on AIDS or being deployed to Iraq. These students have seen life on the outside. They also present an inside look we lack — a perspective on the meaning of an undergraduate liberal arts education that’s blurred by neither alcohol nor nostalgia.

Move aside, gap-year kids. Eli Whitney students are the undergrads who — by choice or by circumstance — are navigating Yale’s least linear educational trajectory.

David Ashcraft

Standing in the newly furnished basement of Rosenkranz Hall Wednesday afternoon, David Clinton Ashcraft II GRD ’10 sticks out among the handful of sweatshirt-clad students slaving away on papers around him. In honor of Veterans Day, he is wearing a navy suit — what he calls his “army service uniform.” It consists of a sharply cut blazer adorned with epaulettes and golden pins, a white shirt and a pair of pleated trousers with bands of yellow satin running down the sides of each leg. There is no dust on his suit, no loose thread along his buttonholes, no misaligned pin on his jacket. He is, like his black patent leather oxfords, immaculately polished.

At the age of 44, Ashcraft has completed a tour in Iraq, been stationed throughout the world from South Korea to Qatar and spent several years in France and Russia, gaining fluency in both of their national languages. He has trained as a rifleman in Fort Benning, Ga., and he has also jumped out of several airplanes (though always with a parachute). The active duty Foreign Areas Officer joined the army at the age of 29, and today, at 44, is completing a master’s degree in International Relations at Yale.

“My time at Yale has been a formative experience,” he said. “I feel proud to be part of a tradition that goes back to 1701.”

Ashcraft first arrived at Yale last August, landing in New Haven right on the heels of his assignment to the French military academy École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. This semester will be his third at Yale and, he said, he already bleeds blue.

“Technically I should wait until I graduate, but I do identify myself as a Yalie,” he said “For God, for country, and for Yale.”

Among his six classes this semester is the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, taught by professors John Gaddis, Charles Hill, Paul Kennedy, Minh Luong and Jeffrey Mankoff. The seminar, known for its selectivity, is open to all members of the University, meaning that some of Ashcraft’s classmates are Yale College students in their early twenties. While Ashcraft, who is married and has a three-year-old son, must juggle a variety of extenuating circumstances with his heavy workload, some of his classmates are wiling away at Saturday nights at Toad’s Place. To Ashcraft, though, this adds a necessary diversity to his classroom experience, one that he does not take for granted.

“The energy and enthusiasm and confidence the [College] students bring reminds me of how I was when I was 18 or 19,” Ashcraft said. “[Yale] is a place I’d like to send my kids.”

But Ashcraft said his interaction with Yale College students is mostly limited to the classroom. Asked if he had ever attended a campus party, he lightheartedly responded with, “No, but tell me of one and I’ll go.”

Sitting in a Rosenkranz classroom with his hands folded neatly over a table, Ashcraft revealed few memories of time abroad or his experiences with the military.

“I’m a strategic thinker,” he explained, his voice unfaltering, his eyes focused. “I try to think ahead and I don’t think too much about the past.”

And while his memories of initiations and military traditions are rich — he occasionally mentions silver bowls used to concoct beverages for nights of revelry on forts in desolate lands — he is careful not to release any personal information.

He is an unshakable, insuperable military man, made of resolve, courage and possibly steel.

Indeed, searching through his memories, Ashcraft revealed the one time he cracked was in high school, and the event only solidified his character as a strong, unwavering person.

When Ashcraft was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, he was excited about KISS. Upon discovering one afternoon the band was traveling to Ohio for a concert, he jumped on his bike and rode from his home to the nearby laundromat to ask his mother for permission to purchase tickets. But, a car got in the way.

When Ashcraft regained consciousness, he noticed his left thigh sagging. His femur was broken.

For the next six months, Ashcraft had to relearn how to walk, how to run and how to ride his bike. And when the cast finally came off, he didn’t hesitate to return to his normal activities, including riding his bicycle through the streets of Maritta, Ohio.

“I had to do it to show that I wasn’t scared of riding my bike,” Ashcraft said. “I never felt afraid to ride my bike.”

This fearlessness continued with him, helping him through the perils of military training — obstacle courses, 25 mile marches and drill sergeant miseries. Reflecting on his time during training, Ashcraft said, with a slight smile, that there was never an obstacle course, never any task in fact, that scared him.

It’s this sense of fearlessness that allowed him to follow his own path through life — taking five years off college to pursue language studies and work, joining the army on the brink of his thirties and now taking classes with those nearly half his age.

“It’s my Sinatra Doctrine,” Ashcraft said. “I did it my way.”

—Amir Sharif

William Chmelar

William Chmelar’s ’12 life is running in reverse.

Before he embarked on his first ever Yale shopping period, Chmelar had already worked as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley, overseeing approximately $70 million in client assets. Before that, he worked at A.G. Edwards, a financial consulting firm, where he hired and managed a staff of two. Before that, he sold cell phones to customers at Verizon Wireless. And before that, Chmelar was a used car salesman, with all of the underhanded wheelings and dealings such a title implies.

“I embodied the car salesman stereotype,” he said, “Las Vegas is a shady town.”

While many typical Yale students work furiously in high school for the opportunity to leap ecstatically into college, proceeding to plug through their academic careers with vague (or not so vague) ideas about entering the world of investment banking, and then, finally, becoming legitimate workers of the world, Chmelar had little interest in going to college straight out of high school.

“I was just going to take a gap year,” he said. “But one thing led to another and some early career success led me to toss the dice and just continue.”

In a lot of ways, it sounds like the plot of a crazy movie: 18-year old moves to Las Vegas, pursues dream.

The reality was not quite as seductive. Lured away from A.G. Edwards to Morgan Stanley, Chmelar was the youngest in the office by 15 years. And, for the majority of his four-and-a-half years in Sin City, Chmelar was underage.

“I was a borderline workaholic,” he said. He worked over 60 hours a week at the car dealership and comparable hours at Morgan Stanley. “Work consumed my world and my interests at the time.”

But though the monetary compensations of this existence were considerable, Chmelar found the work to be “intellectually unsatisfying,” with “very little thinking involved.”

His transition into academics was gradual. Initially enrolling in Pasadena City College for six months, he eventually ended up at Columbia University for a year, before deciding to transfer to Yale.

Originally, Chmelar planned to transfer as a regular undergraduate. Then he discovered the Eli Whitney Program through the Internet. The program, though offering the exact same degree, offered Chmelar “specific administrative support” as an older student, as well as “a really strong sense of community.”

That atmosphere is what drew Chmelar to Yale in the first place. Living off campus at Columbia, he felt segregated from the college community and found himself falling back on friends he had previously known. Though the early stages of the walk from Union Station to Hillhouse Avenue initially deterred him, he was eventually won over by Yale and New Haven.

“Yale is not cloistered like other places,” he said, praising the “down-to-earth aspects” of the University’s open campus.

As an Eli Whitney student, Chmelar’s experiences are, in most ways, strikingly similar to those of the ordinary undergraduate. During this interview, Chmelar was engrossed in his “Cold War” reading. Right now, he’s also taking “The Science of Brewing” (for his science credit), introductory Chinese and an introductory international relations class.

When asked what he’ll major in, Chmelar answered, “political science,” before thinking about it, then demurring – “I could change my mind.” Before arriving at Yale, he thought he would major in economics. Then, he read the course catalogue and changed his mind. Sound familiar?

Though the Eli Whitney students meet up once a week at Rudy’s, Chmelar is committed to being a part of the general undergraduate community, he said. He described himself as “closer to a traditional student” than most of his fellow Eli Whitney students, some of whom study only part of the week. Chmelar lives in the Taft and is a member of the cycling team, as well as the Society for Intellectual Growth and Reinvigoration, a cigar club.

Michael Knowles ’12, the head of SIGAR, recalls having no idea that Chmelar was not an ordinary student.

“I thought he was a regular freshman,” he said, “Then I found out he was my year. Then I found out he was 25.”

But Chmelar is “down to earth” about it and has already ascended to the board of the group, Knowles said.

Chmelar acknowledges that the decision to return to school for four years in the middle of an already thriving career was a huge leap.

“I used to have a secretary and an office with a view,” he said.

Yet Chmelar is already in love with the Yale mystique and is eager to take part in its history and culture. In fact, he’s already checked one important Yale tradition of the list: last week he went to Wednesday night Toad’s for the first time.

—Amy Lee

Robert Johnston

For Major Robert Johnston ’10, an active duty officer in the United States Army, education and military service were intertwined since the beginning. Johnston, now 35, explained his twisting path through schools and war zones, beginning with his birth to a military family stationed in Panama.

He grew up in Los Angeles and at age 17, followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting with the Army after graduating from high school. He served as a private for three years, at which point he was offered the opportunity to take an entrance exam as a part of the “Green to Gold” program, which gives army members the opportunity to earn college degrees. Because of his achievement on the test, the Army offered to pay his way through George Washington University, where he was an active member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Through the “Green to Gold” program, he became an officer, bypassing the traditional enlistment process.

Johnston described his 10-year term as an officer as a valuable and eye opening experience. He moved from Fort Drum, New York, to Germany and then war-torn Bosnia. He said he came away from the trauma of war with a new perspective that he can transpose anywhere in life, even the classroom.

“I can bring something to the classroom that many people can’t — eyes on the ground,” Johnston said.

Unlike many visiting lecturers at Yale, who are often high-ranking generals and present abstract topics like “Iraq strategy,” Johnston described his own experience as almost journalistic.

“You get a very personal, tangible little vignette of what’s happening in those countries,” he said.

Yet this was only the beginning. Johnston was deployed in Afghanistan and then Iraq, proudly noting that he played a role in the budding democratic processes of each country.

Johnston was a part of the 2002 Afghani loya jirga, a Pashto phrase meaning “grand council.” The assembly brought together delegates and leaders of each tribe to forge a new constitution. Ironically, he found himself in Iraq three years later during the country’s first constitutional election as well.

“You know, in 2005 when you saw pictures of Iraqis waving around purple thumbs — I was doing security for that,” Johnston said.

Such first-hand experience contributes directly to his current graduate work in European and Russian studies.

“Among my peers, most have been to [either Iraq or Afghanistan] and not the other,” Johnston explained. “Having been to both and being able to compare them helps me bring a lot to the classroom.”

He took a class last year relating Europe, the United States and Iraq, for example, and said he felt better able to contribute and learn from the class because of his experiences.

Johnston said he was drawn to Yale predominantly by the University’s recognizable name. The school’s global reputation, he added, is especially important for someone in Johnston’s military position, which requires close work with foreign officers.

“As a European studies student, I have access to excellent professors, the Yale library system and the academic freedom that it provides,” Johnston said. “The resources were one of my main reasons for coming.”

That is not to say that matriculation to Yale has been easy for Johnston. The army has no pre-academic training, so officers studying in master’s programs “hit the ground running,” Johnston said, remembering his first semester as a time of panic. The stress of academic work is compounded by the responsibilities of raising a family as well.

Yet Johnston described his friendship with the four other active duty officers currently enrolled at Yale as a strong community and a source of support.

“It’s hard to relate to other graduate students because they don’t have families and live closer to campus,” Johnston said, adding that he feels a much tighter bond with the other officers in programs similar to his. “I’m jealous of the undergraduates, who are able to focus only on college and really take advantage of it.”

Although he said he certainly has no regrets, in retrospect he would ideally have had more time to just “have fun and drink some beer.”

“I don’t feel integrated into Yale,” Johnston said. “I wish I had done more things during my two years here like going to symphonies or plays.”

His two children, one of whom was born at Yale-New Haven Hospital, he added proudly, have caused him to have a much different experience than most graduate students.

He has taken advantage of some of the youth-oriented aspects of the University, particularly the Peabody Museum, which his three-year-old son “goes crazy for,” and the various children’s activities at the Yale Center for British Art, including a “Pirates and Princesses Day.”

Despite his disconnectedness from the majority of the student body, Johnston said Yale is preparing him for what is to come.

“I’m looking forward to going back [to the Middle East],” Johnston said. “I believe that the work the U.S. is doing over there is really valuable.”

—Matthew Claudel

Gregg Gonsalves

Twenty-four years ago — the first time Gregg Gonsalves was an undergraduate — students at Tufts University occupied an administration building for three days to urge divestment in South Africa. Gonsalves attended the protests for as long as he could. But part way in, duty called, and he picked his way past hundreds of students sprawled out on the floors, past the cops surrounding the building and down the hill toward one of Tuft’s laboratories. He never made it. In a moment of clarity, he rushed back, diving through the ring of policemen to get back inside.

Gonsalves was a student of Russian literature, and he liked Russian poetry. But politics were beginning to eclipse academics. He kept thinking, “God, this is so irrelevant.” And politics didn’t just mean apartheid. A young gay man during the heart of the AIDS epidemic, Gonsalves was starting to sense something exploding outside the walls of his college, “a wolf at the door.” The future looked unclear.

So to the dismay of his parents — both New York City schoolteachers — Gonsalves dropped out.

“I don’t want to do this. I don’t have to do this,” he said. “And I was right.”

After stints waiting tables, Gonsalves joined Act Up Boston, a direct action group committed to ending the AIDS crisis. From there, Gonsalves went on to become a leading figures in AIDS activism and health policy, winning the $100,000 John M. Lloyd Foundation AIDS Leadership Award in 2008 for over 15 years of contributions to the field. He sat on panels for the Food and Drug Administration, authored “Basic Research on HIV Infection: A Report from the Front” and briefed President Clinton on HIV policy. In 2003, he founded the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition to advocate for AIDS treatment in over 125 countries. Five years later, Gonsalves was the first non-scientist chosen to deliver the general address on AIDS treatment at the International Conference on AIDS to an audience of over 20,000.

But lately, Gonsalves’s been focusing on his lab reports. A year and a half ago, he sent off an application to the Eli Whitney Students Program, with a little recommendation from the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He was accepted.

At the time Gonsalves was working in South Africa, his life in upheaval, as outbreaks of xenophobic violence turned his organization office into a proxy-Red Cross.

“I wanted a chance to be able to think and not be in the crisis of AIDS in South Africa or AIDS in New York City or dealing with the Bush Administration,” he said.

Since leaving Tufts, he’d always been self-taught. For someone who spent his life in activism and advocacy, Gonsalves saw this as a chance to do something for himself. A full undergraduate course load is his version of sabbatical.

At Yale, Gonsalves has immersed himself in the sciences — chemistry, physics, evolutionary biology — that have always informed AIDS work. He’s stayed away from anything too close to his areas of expertise, but the past invariably informs the present. In the early 90’s, Gonsalves was involved in discussions about people that contracted the HIV virus and never get sick; at Yale, he wrote a research paper about the Sooty Mangabey, a species of monkey that does not succumb to the simian version of HIV.

As can be expected, being a middle-aged college kid has its funny moments of disconnect. Gonsalves recalled sitting in section one day, and having his TA announce he’d just turned 23. “Oh woah, I just turned 46,” he thought. Another time, on a walk down science hill, he consoled a distraught teenager about her grade on a biology test. He promised in 10 years it would all be fine.

You can count on good ol’ Wikipedia to tell it as it is. The last two sentences of Gonsalves’s page read:

“At the International AIDS Conference, held in Toronto, Gonsalves gave a powerful speech on the 25 years of AIDS. Gonsalves is currently Physics Lab partners with Tomoki Kimura, a student at Yale University.”

Between fact-amassing and family life, writing reading responses and heading up a few lingering advisory boards, there’s a bit of something Gonsalves calls a “psychic divide.” Some of his colleagues don’t understand his choice, but he’s not bothered by it.

“My life’s been very improvisational,” said Gonsalves.

Like many Eli Whitney students, he’s not ashamed of switching gears.

—Kate Lund

Comments

  • Sarah

    Great article!

    The following sentence, however, is a bit misleading: “Unlike other non-traditional student programs such as Harvard’s Extension School or Columbia’s School of General Studies, Eli Whitney students are enrolled exclusively in Yale College.

    At Harvard’s Extension School students are enrolled in a separate division with a separate faculty. That is not the case at Columbia University School of General Studies. Like Ely Whitney students at Yale, Columbia School of General Studies students enroll in the same classes that are taught by the same faculty, and they are held to the same academic standards as all Columbia undergraduates.

  • hmm

    scene: did you mean to put the headlines “not your typical gap year” and “this ain’t your usual chorus line” right next to one another?

  • yale ’08

    Awesome article! It’s about time superbly qualified adult students are recognized at top universities. Yale in many respects is on the cutting edge of nontraditional student integration at the undergrad level. The stark differences between the Harvard Extension School and the Eli Whitney Students Program are evidence of this. Go Bulldogs!

  • huff

    PUFF

  • Yale ’07

    Interesting article. I think I had a couple Eli Whitney Students in a seminar or two. Didn’t even notice until one of them told me his background. These guys are really accomplished. The students add a lot to Yale’s value as well as to its diversity.

  • AL

    I am a bit late to this topic, so please forgive me. I would hate for someone to read this and be misinformed.

    Harvard Extension and Columbia’s School of General Studies are completely different.

    The School of General Studies is in fact more in line with Yale’s non-traditional student program, with the obvious exception that Columbia has an entire college devoted to these students. It is is one of three colleges that comprise the undergraduate landscape at Columbia University. Students enrolled take the same classes as all other undergraduates and earn the same degree as students at Columbia College. They must also meet the requirements of Columbia’s legendary “Core”. They have access to the same resources and are fully regarded as Columbia students. Also, it is somewhat difficult to gain admission, whereas Harvard Extension is a breeze.

    In short, The School of General Studies is a traditional Ivy League college within Columbia with deep roots. Think of it as the Eli Whitney Program on steroids.

  • Yale Alum ’08

    Well, the issue over whether or not Columbia GS is truly the same as Columbia College is a bit more contentious than you make it appear.

    Columbia GS is indeed one of the 3 colleges that makes up Columbia undergrad and provides an excellent Columbia education, but to say that it has achieved total parity with the other two colleges in terms of degree status, prestige, and the way students are treated, well, that might be somewhat of a stretch. Many GS students have complained in this regard. Some of them ended up transferring to Yale through the EW program.

    And I also disagree that Columbia GS is ‘Yale on steroids’. Yale’s EW may have less developed roots, but those roots are today more integrated into Yale proper than GS ever has been into Columbia.

    However, there should be no doubt that Columbia GS is a much better program than Harvard Extension by a long shot and overall one of the best non-traditional programs among leading universities.