Student Spotlight 22′: Alexander Bilochenko, U.S. Navy

Tell us about yourself.

I am from Kherson, Ukraine, but I moved to the U.S. when I was 10. I grew up in Tucson, AZ, and decided to join the Navy after high school. I chose the Navy over a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arizona because I had a strong desire to give back to the country that saved my life. America welcomed me with open arms and provided opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. 

My job was a Fire Controlman First Class aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam. Specifically, I worked on the computer equipment used to process ballistic and radar targeting data, which our ship’s weapons systems used. I also joined the ship’s “flying squad,” which was the rapid response team handling damage control while underway. Despite being promoted to E-6 after four years and on the fast track to E-7, I decided to separate from the Navy to pursue higher education at the University of Chicago. 

An interesting fact about myself is that I’ve been meditating for nearly a decade and can confidently say that it has been nothing short of a software upgrade for my mind. I learned mindfulness from Theravada Buddhist monks in Tucson and reinforced my understanding by attending a silent Vipassana meditation retreat in rural Japan. I have also continued my practice with help from Sam Harris’ app “Waking Up.” 

What was your educational background prior to attending WSP, and which of our courses did you attend? 

I attended a nationally ranked public college preparatory high school and, as previously mentioned, turned down a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arizona to join the Navy. I took online classes through Arizona State University while working 80 to 100-hour weeks during my enlistment. About halfway through my contract, I learned about Service to School and the Warrior-Scholar Project, both of which inspired me to shoot for the stars. I applied for Warrior-Scholar Project and attended the humanities and business & entrepreneurship boot camps at the University of Southern California.

A year from the end of my service obligation, I applied to the University of Chicago through their unique enrolling admission option for veterans and was admitted three weeks later. Securing my future ahead of time was important. As one of the most knowledgeable sailors aboard the ship, I gave my full effort until the day I walked off the brow for the last time. Because I did so, my commanding officer granted me nearly 90 days of leave, allowing me to make it to Chicago on time to attend school. My advice to people nearing the end of their service is to finish strong: give yourself something to be proud of.

Why did you decide to participate in WSP this summer, and was there a shift in your confidence level from the first day of the course to the last day?

Although I had already secured admission to one of the country’s best colleges, I attended WSP because the organization had inspired me early on in my journey. I didn’t have a chance to participate while in the military due to being forward-deployed throughout my service. I was excited to have an opportunity to finally attend an academic boot camp at USC before starting classes at UChicago in the fall.

Additionally, I wanted to meet like-minded veterans while tapping into one of the best alumni networks in the country. I figured that veterans attending WSP would be among the best & brightest our services had to offer, and I was not disappointed. They were some of the most motivated and inspirational service members I’ve ever met!

What were some key insights you gained during your courses, and what is your biggest takeaway? 

I came into WSP fairly confident in my ability to succeed in the classroom, and I knew that I could learn anything through hard work. My confidence level remained high; however, I was humbled in the sense that I understood the importance of being able to triage assignments and plan rest. Most days, I studied from 7 am until midnight, which would’ve been unsustainable had I not triaged the unimportant. As UChicago has a notoriously rigorous curriculum, I’m glad to have learned that skill in a setting that doesn’t impact my official academic record.

I already touched on this, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of understanding your key priorities. It could be getting a perfect score, clarifying your thoughts, networking, or any number of other possibilities. Let me be clear: you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

Another important insight was the value of Socratic discourse. In the military, philosophical discussion as it pertains to the mission is either one-sided or curt. In an academic setting, it’s perfectly fine to talk about something with no end goal in mind, and it’s okay to speak to clarify one’s thinking or to challenge an idea that seems shortsighted or misinformed.

I also learned that it’s okay to ask for help and that it’s okay not to have all the answers. Both can be frowned upon in a military setting, especially when one is in a leadership position. In the classroom, those who are willing to be vulnerable are the ones who learn the most… and those who learn the most are the ones who succeed in their studies.

In one word, how would you describe your overall experience?

Powerful!

We would love to get to know you better, so please tell us about yourself.

I am from Southern California, specifically the Inland Empire, where I have spent much of my life. I currently reside in Hemet, CA. I served in the U.S. Navy as a machinist’s mate, and my calling to serve in the military resulted from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I had just graduated high school and was working odd jobs while attending community college when the attacks occurred. I was already considering serving in the military, but the outcome of that day thrust me forward into serving my country. 

An interesting fact about myself is that I am a graduate of Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) in Riverside, CA. I struggled and stumbled after military service, but the court gave me a second chance. They ensured I got the help I needed rather than have me serve a prison sentence. While going through VTC, I took my mental health seriously, which helped me return to community college. It is here where I unpacked my true calling of helping others.

One way I help others is by serving as the student veteran representative for the diversity council, where I act as a voice for veterans regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am also the president of a student-led organization that supports formerly incarcerated and system-impacted students called the Underground Scholars Initiative.  

What was your educational background prior to attending WSP, and which of our courses did you attend? 

Before attending the WSP humanities course this past summer at the University of Pennsylvania, I had already completed my community college honors program. During this program, I completed five faculty-mentored research papers and graduated in 2019 with three associate degrees. In 2020, I transferred to the University of California, Riverside (UCR), where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree. 

While at UCR, I was selected as one of fourteen undergraduates to be a 21’-22’ Chancellor’s Research Fellow. I conducted a year-long faculty-mentored independent research project and completed a two-quarter senior thesis project. UCR is a large academic research institution with a rigorous academic curriculum, and I have been privileged to present my work at various levels. 

Why did you decide to participate in WSP this summer, and was there a shift in your confidence level from the first day of the course to the last day? 

It was a serendipitous occurrence. I was looking to get involved with a different veteran’s organization when a misstep in my typing populated Warrior-Scholar Project in my Google search. Although I was about to finish my bachelor’s degree, I still saw value in attending WSP. I felt the program would offer something unique to my academic experience, mainly because I would be in a classroom of only veterans and active duty service members. Also, the stipend made the choice a no-brainer. If it weren’t for the financial assistance, I wouldn’t have attended WSP. Thank you tremendously to the donors who made that happen!

Even though I went to college for nearly four years, I still had reservations. I knew I would survive the rigorous academic week, but I was worried about being in a classroom rich in military culture. I go to college with over 200 student veterans, but we are rarely in the same classroom. Being out of the military for 15 years and interacting with a younger generation made me nervous. This was absolved rather quickly as the WSP Fellows were professional, kind, humble, and exhibited a sincere desire for growth in academia. I am now thrilled to call each of them a friend. 

When I left Upenn, my confidence was through the roof. Although I successfully pursued my undergrad, I never considered applying to an Ivy League school for my graduate degree because imposter syndrome had hit me hard. My experience at UPenn helped me find confidence in knowing that I can survive and thrive at an Ivy League institution and that I am needed there. I am excited to say that I have reset the bar for graduate schools that I will be applying to this cycle.

What were some key insights you gained during your courses, and what is your biggest takeaway? 

My biggest takeaway is that civic service is a fundamental necessity for American democracy to work, and to be of service is to position the greater good of society before self. Ensuring all members of the American mosaic are represented democratically and equally moves forward our campaign to form a “more perfect union.” This endeavor depends on all members of the American fabric to participate in civic service. Indeed, for a democratic republic to function effectively and equitably, “We the People” are responsible for the well-being of one another. 

My time at UPenn empowered me with a rich sense of confidence in knowing that the enlisted veteran’s voice unequivocally needs to be present in higher education classrooms. Being part of a community and engaging in thought-provoking conversations with my cohort inspired me to pivot away from my earlier plans of pursuing a Ph.D. in History and instead pursue professional degrees in public policy and law. This is just one example of the exemplary power of WSP.

In one word, how would you describe your overall experience?

Fulfilling!

*View Greg’s LinkedIn profile here.

Tell us about yourself.

I am from Cambridge Springs, PA, and I currently serve in the U.S Navy out of Norfolk, VA. As a teenager, I knew that I wanted to join the military because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college. Currently, I have two jobs in the Navy, one as an airframe mechanic (AM) and the other as an intelligence analyst (CTR). 

What was your educational background prior to attending WSP, and which of our courses did you attend? 

I was homeschooled from second grade through my senior year. I also completed two military MOS schools and three college classes through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I attended business week at the University of Southern California (USC) and humanities week at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). I enjoyed attending a program at different universities, as it allowed me to gain two different perspectives on higher education.

Why did you decide to participate in WSP this summer, and was there a shift in your confidence level from the first day of the course to the last day? 

I signed up for WSP because I wanted to learn more about college, and I was especially interested in getting a feel for the academic rigor I could expect. I also looked forward to talking with the professors and meeting fellow veterans with similar interests. If I’m being honest, I wanted to see if I was ready to attend college after the military.

My confidence level on the first day at USC was low. I knew I could handle the courses, but lacked the confidence to speak up, communicate my ideas, and express my opinion. However, my confidence level went up significantly by the final day at UCI. A big part of this was because the WSP fellows from both weeks took the time to answer my questions, connect me with mentors, and encourage me not to hold myself back. I am very thankful for the opportunity to attend.

What were some key insights you gained during your courses, and what is your biggest takeaway? 

Attending WSP helped me gain a fuller picture of what it is like to attend college. It also gave me a better understanding of how to apply to college, the limitations, the amount of financial aid available, and the seemingly endless veteran resources available to me. Although knowing these things are valuable, the most important thing I learned was how to regain confidence in myself. I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth.

In one word, how would you describe your overall experience?

Invaluable!

*View Hannah’s LinkedIn profile here.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was founded in 1867 and was originally named Illinois Industrial University. Their name was officially changed to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 1977. By enrollment population, UIUC is considered one of the largest public universities, with over 56,000 undergraduate and graduate students. WSP partnered with UIUC for the first time in 2022.

Location: Champaign, IL

Mascot: No official mascot

School Colors: Blue and Orange

Admissions: First Year Applicants, Transfer Applicants

Veterans Resources

Columbia University Cohort

What was your educational experience prior to WSP? Would you consider yourself a confident student?

As a kid, my teachers nicknamed me “the philosopher” — I was quite contemplative. However, I was also very energetic, which got me into trouble. I began my education by scoring the highest in my grade and receiving prizes. I also remember my first-grade teacher being so proud of me for scoring highest, but also one day aiming to hit me on my hands with an orange pvc pipe, but instead hitting my lips, that bled turned blue and then doubled in size. I also remember in third grade pulling my principal’s tie as he was forcing me down to hit the sole of my feet with another pipe.

So from the beginning, my educational experience has been so traumatic and emotionally complex, that I just avoid dwelling on any part of it and for the most part avoid school for the sake of my sanity and to preserve the little “philosophia” flame – love of wisdom and learning- within my heart. 

Had you participated in any sort of virtual learning before? If so, how does your WSP experience compare to that?

I have never participated in any virtual learning, but I loved how WSP organized it.

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

I was not excited to participate. I was anxious as I usually am with anything related to school, teachers, or organized learning. However, Columbia is one of the few happy places of learning for me. When I was in high school, I met a teacher there who allowed me to do what I wanted and respected me.

What have you learned so far that you think will be helpful as you pursue your degree?

I have learned many things, but my biggest paradigm shift is becoming a heretical bibliophile. My idea of reverence for books was a sanctimonious effete tradition. A book that is not engaged with a pen, highlighted and dog earmarked won’t be passed down or inherited because its previous owner didn’t really own it. It was just a hollow shelf decoration. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

While I always thought of physics as a spiritual pursuit akin to reading a mystical poem. I was never lucky enough to learn it in a class. I feel blessed to have had two great professors from MIT who had the patience to engage our ever-expanding curiosity. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cohort and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Cohort

What was your educational experience prior to WSP? Would you consider yourself a confident student?

I attended a local community college prior to joining the Army. After serving in the military for over four years, I lost confidence in myself as a student. After my service, I returned to the local community college, regained my confidence, and was accepted to Brown University. 

Had you participated in any sort of virtual learning before? If so, how does your WSP experience compare to that?

While attending a local community college, I had to switch from in-person classes to virtual learning via Zoom due to COVID-19. In comparison, I enjoyed the virtual learning with WSP fellows and participants more since everyone actively engaged and participated at all times. 

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

I was very excited and grateful to take a course at one of the top universities in this nation. More importantly, I was excited to participate in the WSP STEM curriculum this summer with my interest in environmental science. In addition, I am thankful to be connected with other veterans and fellows who are passionate about higher education. 

What have you learned so far that you think will be helpful as you pursue your degree?

One of the most insightful experiences with WSP was how kind and willing other veterans are to help. It was nice to know that there are resources available to support and guide me through my journey in higher education. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

I was looking forward to connecting with other veterans interested in obtaining a degree. I was especially interested in learning Python programming while participating in the research project during STEM week. 

What research project did you work on, and what did you learn from that experience?

My research project was on gravitational waves with guidance from Sylvia Biscoveanu. This phenomenal research project taught me how Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO detects gravitational waves. Furthermore, using Python programming, we analyzed and interpreted LIGO data. From this experience, I learned to cherish teamwork as my peers helped each other understand the concepts and present the work we completed through a well-constructed presentation. 

Are there any instructors or fellows who have made a difference for you this week so far?

All of the fellows and instructors were phenomenal. All the participants, including myself, felt very welcomed and comfortable in this healthy learning environment. 

Is WSP having any effect on how confident you feel as a student?

Yes, WSP has helped me gain more confidence as a student. One of the more prominent realizations I experienced from this program is to let myself relax and have fun in academic settings by asking questions and sharing my personal experiences during discussions or seminars. Lastly, with studying skills and tips given by WSP, I feel more confident as a student.