University Recognizes Veterans Excelling in Classroom

More than 3,000 military veterans are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs on CUNY’s 24 campuses, a 50 percent increase since 2010 due in part to the University’s reputation for welcoming veterans and providing them with services that help them succeed.

Every year since 2009, CUNY campuses have earned recognition for being among the country’s most “military friendly” colleges, a designation by Victory Media, a respected veterans’ advocacy organization that uses strong data-based measures to assess resources, services and outreach that colleges provide student veterans.

In advance of Veterans Day, CUNY’s Office of Veterans Affairs this week is honoring student veterans who have maintained grade point averages of 3.5 or above. For the fifth year, the Veterans Affairs office presented the awards at a breakfast on Monday at The Graduate Center, prior to a networking-and-resource fair to which all 3,000 CUNY student veterans were invited.

“CUNY is proud to be a university that welcomes veterans and reservists not only in words but in actions – with programs, services and resources that help ease their transitions and support their pursuit of success,” said Chancellor James B. Milliken. “And we’re proud of our veterans – proud of the academic excellence, diversity and life experience they bring to all our campuses.”

CUNY student vets have served in every branch of the military and in every part of the world. Many fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and in other areas of post-9/11 conflict, while some served prior to the years of large-school deployments to the Middle East. Like CUNY students in general, they are diverse in every way and come from a range of backgrounds and personal histories. They are a distinct group of CUNY’s “nontraditional” students.

Here’s a look at a few of the CUNY veterans being honored for their academic achievement:

Throughout his eight years on active duty as a Marine – in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Europe – Eugene Marmontov envisioned coming home one day and going to college. Specifically, to John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I always wanted to go into public service in the justice field,” he said, “and I knew that was the place I wanted to be.”

Marmontov, 35, was born in Moscow and emigrated to Brooklyn with his mother when he was 18. “I spent the first few years trying to assimilate, learn the language, learn the culture, working random jobs,” he says. “I became a citizen.” At 24, and alone after his mother was killed in a car accident, he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. He served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a scout sniper team, followed by a deployment with security forces at Guantanamo Bay and then assignments in Europe, Israel and Libya training with forces from those countries.

Marmontov ended his active duty career in 2015, when he decided it was time to “explore myself and go to college.” He headed straight to John Jay as he’d long planned and found it as welcoming a place for veterans as he’d heard. “People there are phenomenal in helping with GI benefits, picking classes, employment, mentorship with other veterans. I got an internship with the U.S. Marshals.”

A forensic psychology major with a 3.95 GPA, Marmontov will graduate in December and hopes to begin his career in law enforcement either with a federal agency such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency or Secret Service, or with the NYPD. He also plans to continue his education, studying part time in John Jay’s graduate program in public administration. Meanwhile, he hasn’t completely separated from the service: He remains a Marine reservist.
Samantha Ruiz grew up in East Harlem and enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 2001. “I was in basic training when 9/11 happened,” she says. She was 18 and planned to spend four years in the service, taking advantage of the Navy College Fund to pursue her education. But two years in, plans changed. She became a parent while stationed in Virginia and school had to wait. She wound up staying in the service for 14 years, the last few stationed in Japan.

“I trained first as a mechanical engineer, but eventually I segued into career counseling and drug and alcohol counseling,” Ruiz, now 35, said. “I worked one-on-one helping sailors with career goals and transitioning out of the Navy.” It was a skill that came in handy when the time came for her own transition in 2015: “My oldest was 14 and going into high school and I felt it was more important to be with him so I decided to come home to East Harlem and go back to school at CUNY.”

Ruiz completed an associate degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College, then transferred to Hunter College as a sociology major. She’s maintained a 3.8 GPA and will graduate next spring. “Going back to school was definitely a culture shock,” she says. “I was a lot older and had a lot of life experiences. I’ve been in 21 countries and have a more global perspective about how things work than typical college students. But it was really beneficial being a sociology major.”

Ruiz works part time on Hunter’s student veteran services team, helping fellow veterans make their own transitions to school and life after the service. Not the least of it is helping them navigate the paperwork for VA education benefits – things she herself got help with when she returned. After graduation, Ruiz hopes to continue on to a master’s at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter. She knows exactly who her clients will be: “I want to work with vets.”
Though most student vets served in the post-2001 era and arrived on CUNY campuses soon after their discharges, some are veterans of earlier wars and took different routes to college. “You know, I’m an old man,” joked Edgardo Cedeno, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran who graduated from Lehman College this summer and is now working on a master’s.

His story begins long before most of his fellow student vets were even born. Raised in the Bronx, Cedeno was drafted into the Army in 1968 and served a year in Vietnam. Like many returning vets in those years, he struggled for a few years after his discharge. “Veterans weren’t welcomed home as they are now,” he says ¬– but he eventually straightened his life out and got a job with Con Edison through the federal CETA program. It turned into a 34-year career.

Retiring in 2013, Cedeno decided to go to college, at Lehman, where his wife, Cordia, had earned an undergraduate and a master’s degree. “We used to tell our kids about the value of education,” Cedeno said, and now it was his time to follow his own advice.

He majored in political science, a longtime interest. “Going back to school was a little intimidating at first. I was older than everyone, even the professors. But I took to the work and I graduated cum laude.” He wasn’t finished: A few weeks later he began Lehman’s master’s program in organizational leadership. His studies are aligned with his passion for service: A deacon at Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Cedeno leads the church’s social service ministry at Taconic Correctional Facility, a women’s prison. He’s also thinking about becoming a member of his local community board. “I went back to school for the education itself, but also for my community work,” he said. “If you don’t have credentials you’re not taken seriously, even at my age.”

The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in 1847, the University comprises 24 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, the William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, the CUNY Graduate School and University Center, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, the CUNY School of Law, the CUNY School of Professional Studies and the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The University serves more than 272,000 degree-seeking students. College Now, the University’s academic enrichment program, is offered at CUNY campuses and more than 400 high schools throughout the five boroughs. The University offers online baccalaureate and master’s degrees through the CUNY School of Professional Studies.