Navigating a nontraditional path: Phillip Sheldon ’20 talks coming to the College as a veteran, creating conversations

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Phillip Sheldon '20 entered the College as a new transfer student this fall. COURTESY PHOTO / PHILLIP SHLEDON

Each week, The Flat Hat profiles one person — a student, faculty or staff member, or alum that is deeply connected to the College of William and Mary. This week, The Flat Hat presents its first profile in a series about nontraditional students on campus.

Five years ago, Phillip Sheldon ’20 was standing in a hole he dug while deployed in Afghanistan as a machine gunner. As he stood there, the now-veteran of the Marine Corps wondered where life would lead him in future years. He soon found himself emailing the Office of Undergraduate Admission at the College of William and Mary, hoping to uncover that answer.

“I feel more humbled than anything that I can be here today looking back at that point five years ago,” Sheldon said.

“I feel more humbled than anything that I can be here today looking back at that point five years ago,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon, who is 26 years old, aims to major in international relations at the College — a path in academia that he believes he is well-prepared for.

His career in the military kept him traveling. He was first deployed in Afghanistan, then left for Romania on his second deployment and visited Bulgaria during that deployment. Before he returned to the United States, he visited Kyrgyzstan. However, Sheldon was not new to travel. Before his time in the military, he lived overseas with his father, who was a diplomat with the United States Agency for International Development. They lived in Senegal, Italy and Ethiopia, which Sheldon said gave him insight into other cultures.

“I grew up having a good grasp of intercultural communication,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon has an appetite for adventure: the student veteran has visited 25 different countries, hiked 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail and worked as an outdoor instructor for Recreational Equipment Inc.

During his time at REI, Sheldon attended Northern Virginia Community College. When he heard about the opportunity to transfer to a four-year university, Sheldon sent applications to George Washington University, the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and the College.

“What drew me the most to William and Mary is it’s a smaller school … [and] with its smaller size, I felt like I had more engagement with the professors and I could also engage my peers more,” Sheldon said. “I felt that going to a larger school, a lot of the stories that a student body may have can get lost with a large [class] size.”

Sheldon was accepted into both the College and UVA, but he chose the College for its academic rigor and international relations program. As a former foreign security force advisor with experience in international security cooperation, he learned how and why to train foreign militaries. When he enrolled in courses at the College, he recognized the overlap between his position and his academic interests.

“A lot of these ideas that I learned while I was going through the foreign security force advisor course — like being able to speak with an interpreter, learning the different laws and the international law behind it, the reason why we have these programs, why they exist to bolster our relationship with NATO, to have that presence there too — a lot of that coexists with the programs here,” Sheldon said.

On his experience as a transfer student, Sheldon noted that he had some credit-related issues due to NOVA’s standard of curriculum in mathematics and the absence of a statistics course. His math courses consequently did not transfer to the College, and he said that he wished that there was more transparency in NOVA’s policy and advising systems. Despite losing credits, Sheldon said he is grateful for the College’s advising system, which he has found helpful in navigating academic requirements.

Transfer students, exchange students and students hailing participating in the St Andrews Joint Degree Programme are expected to attend Orientation alongside freshman students, where they are put in their own orientation groups. However, they may have exemptions from some programs, such as AlcoholEdu, if they are above the age of 24. To Sheldon, Orientation seemed more suited to the freshman experience, but that did not stop him from appreciating the different facets of Orientation or the lessons he learned from the younger students.

“While I did feel that some of the material was going over stuff I’d learned before, I still felt it was vital because you’re not aware of where everyone comes from,” Sheldon said. “So even though people may be older, or they may have different values that they’re coming with, you’re also injecting new ideas into what they’ve learned before.”

During Orientation, Sheldon said he and other transfers struggled with making assumptions about each other. With the help of small group discussions held after Orientation sessions, he realized appearances can be deceiving, both in older and younger students.

“One of the many assumptions that exists out there for college students at large is [that] freshmen just lived in one town for their entire life, and they never pursued any type of intercultural training and so they’ve only just had that one experience,” Sheldon said. “ … When I was in my German 150 class today, I figured out that there [were two] freshmen that grew up overseas in Lithuania, some in Europe — a larger part of Europe as well and a few different countries. And so, they, while being 18 or 19 and a little bit younger than most of the transfers, they still had varying experiences even though they were freshmen.”

Sheldon, who is a member of the Student Veterans Association, said that he finds the shared goal of obtaining a degree that exists between students and student veterans to be one unifying reason for all students to connect with each other. Despite differences between students and student veterans, reaching out to others is critical to understanding what you have in common with someone else, Sheldon said.

“We are unified when we start talking to each other, we learn that ‘Wow, there’s a lot of experiences that we also have in common,’” Sheldon said. “We might not necessarily be the same age or been in the military or in other paths of life, but we can find those shared commonalities and we can find other things that we have in common as well.”

While serving in Afghanistan, Sheldon experienced losing friends that were killed in action. He said that the importance of reaching out to others grows when someone is trying to get through that kind of pain.

“Being in Afghanistan, unfortunately there are people who I was friends with that can’t be here today,” Sheldon said. “It’s a little bit more difficult for veterans who have these more traumatic experiences to be able to share with the campus. I encourage veterans and any students to be able to talk about them to us, because that’s how we learn, how we appreciate other people.”

“Being in Afghanistan, unfortunately there are people who I was friends with that can’t be here today,” Sheldon said. “It’s a little bit more difficult for veterans who have these more traumatic experiences to be able to share with the campus. I encourage veterans and any students to be able to talk about them to us, because that’s how we learn, how we appreciate other people.”

As he begins a new chapter in his life at the College, Sheldon has gotten involved in several new ways. He currently serves as goalie of the ice hockey club team and is running for transfer outreach and liaison positions involving veterans and students. He said he looks forward to getting involved in more student leadership positions and activities and is grateful for the opportunity to attend the College.

“When I go back to that point of my friends not being here, I think about that a lot where, unfortunately, they didn’t have the ability to go to College,” Sheldon said. “But I’m sitting here today being able to say that I’m going to the second oldest college in the nation. There’s not many things I pride myself more on.”

Correction: Originally the article stated that Sheldon visited Kyrgyzstan on his second deployment, but he visited the country on his way back from the United States.  Additionally, only two, not several, freshmen were a part of Phillip’s discussion in German class.