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!

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.

University of Southern California Cohort

Where were you in your academic journey when you completed your WSP academic boot camp? 

I was wrapping up my community college courses and was applying to a couple of universities in my area.

Where are you now in your academic journey? If you are enrolled in school, where? What are you majoring in? 

This past winter, I just started business school at Santa Clara University, majoring in management and minoring in construction management.

How did what you learned at WSP help you get to where you are today?

As a first-generation college student, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options or support when it came to pursuing higher education. As a result, I joined the Marine Corps, where I gained the grit and determination needed to accomplish whatever I set my mind to. However, I didn’t think that was applicable to higher education. WSP helped me realize my potential as a student veteran and reinforced that we can accomplish whatever we set our minds to as veterans.

What’s the best part of being a WSP alumnus?

While serving in the military, there was a unique sense of camaraderie and trust among one another. I am fortunate to have the same kind of people in the WSP alumni group. Whatever we need, we know that there’s someone that we can reach out to that will give us a hand. 

What advice do you have for other vets or service members who might want to pursue higher education?

If you think you are not smart enough. Have doubts about your ability to succeed in academia because of your past grades. Or, “insert whatever excuses you use”, that’s ok because I thought that too. What you’re feeling is entirely normal! School will not be easy, but you learn a thing or two in the military that you can use to succeed in higher education. There are many experiences, memories, and friends to make in this new chapter of your life, so keep an open mind and see where it takes you! 

Do you have a post-education career goal in mind? What is it?

As my time in the Marine Corps was ending, I began looking into entrepreneurship because I felt that I had learned how to lead a team and manage an operation. My dad has owned his business for the last 20 years, so I decided to join the team and grow the family business.

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

Prior to WSP, I was attending community college full-time while serving in the Navy full-time. Due to having a full schedule, I usually felt defeated and exhausted from the course load. Although I am a stellar student, I often doubted my ability to maintain this standard and attended WSP to learn how to balance the two aspects of my life in a productive way.

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

WSP has taught me many critical skills that will help me fundamentally as a college student. However, the biggest lesson I took away from WSP is learning how to develop an “outside of the box” mindset. From the very beginning, the military emphasizes following orders or instructions to an exact point. When I entered the college community and realized that there were no blueprints or instructions to follow, the transition was extremely difficult. Throughout the business week, I was encouraged to find answers to problems with no set solution, plan for the unexpected, and find innovative ways to do even the smallest tasks. By taking these in-depth courses, I feel even more confident in my ability to tackle the unexpected challenges of college.

What was your favorite session, and why?

My favorite session was the Invanti entrepreneurial class taught by Dustin and Maria. Their in-depth lessons on what it means to be an entrepreneurial thinker were extremely insightful and have helped me immensely. I also really liked putting together a pitch for a company that I created and presenting it to experts in the startup industry. The feedback and encouragement that I received were amazing and has greatly encouraged me to think about starting my own business.

Are there any instructors or fellows who have made a difference for you at WSP?

Han Nguyen and Patrick Trujilo were absolutely amazing fellows! They were there for me every step of the way through this rigorous course and provided a lot of insight on what it takes to be a successful college student. Seeing that they were veterans in schools and positions that I aspire to be in has allowed me to believe that my goals and dreams are not only possible, but achievable.

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

I attended Baylor University for one semester prior to joining the Navy. Also, throughout my time on active duty, I took a few college courses online. I would not say I am a super confident student, but I know I am willing to work hard to succeed.

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

Initially, it was for the academic learning aspect of the program, but as it continued, I valued the people significantly more. The professors were awesome, and learning from those smart individuals gave me a broader academic sense of mind. However, getting to interact with other veterans was the most rewarding part. Before the program, I was struggling with transitioning from active duty to civilian life because I lost that specific type of camaraderie. This program gave me that camaraderie again.

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

I think what I have learned is a somewhat non-conventional answer. The best thing I learned from this program was balance. I don’t have to go all out on academics all the time to be successful. Part of college is learning who I am, even at 25, and this program reminded me of that. Balance isn’t something we are taught in the military, so now I can try to implement that into my life during college, so it is more enjoyable.

What was your favorite session, and why?

This is a hard question to answer because I have favorites in both the academic sessions and the fellow-led sessions. My favorite academic sessions out of the program were the seminars from Professor Fraga and Professor Dempsey. Although humanities will not be my avenue of study, their lectures really taught me the importance of taking an active role in government. Prior to their lectures, I had the mindset that my vote would never matter, but after hearing them talk about democracy and our country, it made me want to do more. In the fellow-led discussions, the “Making the Transition” session was my favorite. The fellows were awesome about being candid and letting us talk freely about things that have been hard in the transition. I honestly thought I was alone or being a wimp since I was having a difficult time transitioning, but that whole session validated my thoughts and reminded me that others were feeling the same.

Are there any instructors or fellows who have made a difference for you at WSP? Is WSP having any effect on how confident you feel as a student?

Oh man, this is another difficult one. All the instructors made a huge difference in my confidence, especially the writing professors, Mr. Capdevielle and Mr. Zurro. As far as fellows, I felt like Joseph Grillo, Matt Braaten, and Kahlil Ello were so supportive. I was able to have one-on-one conversations with them, ranging from interacting with students younger than me to philosophy. They really made it an inclusive environment, and it made me feel like I could actually do this whole college thing.