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.

Princeton University Cohort

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

I used to be a confident student, maybe too confident because I never did homework but still managed to get decent grades. After encountering a suicide-vehicle-borne IED in 2006 while in Afghanistan, I found learning to be a challenge. I struggled with comprehension, retention, and memory issues. In the years since I had to relearn how to learn, and that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to join WSP. I knew that if I could make it through the week-long intensives, I would be more confident about returning to school full-time.

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

The WSP virtual experience was great considering it was virtual! The fellows and professors were so organized and everything was streamlined. They had whiteboards, scratch pads, and being able to share screens was key! The use of Google Drive, Zoom, and the various tools made everything easier.

Why were you excited to participate in WSP?

I love learning and I looked forward to spending time with other veterans who have the same goals and dreams. I knew we’d all connect easily, and develop a support network to cheer us on throughout our educational pursuits.

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

The biggest thing I learned was that despite everything I’ve forgotten and all of the learning issues I’ve struggled with since my TBI, I can take classes I thought were impossible for me like Physics and higher-level math. I know how much effort I need to put in but even better than that, I know how to leverage the school’s resources to work smarter and be successful. My STEM week at Princeton was very challenging but thanks to the WSP fellows who never gave up on me when I wanted to, the experience helped me find my confidence. . . and that is priceless.

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

During WSP’s Princeton STEM week, I was looking forward to learning about STEM in general. I’ve always understood it conceptually but had never considered what it would mean to pursue the field. More than anything, I wanted to push myself in subjects that were intimidating to someone who moved around a lot growing up like Physics and HARD math! 🙂

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

Our team worked on using Python programming to evaluate data to see if we could glean information for research purposes. We learned the basics of Python and how to write code that could give us various data results. It was informative and interesting.

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

I cannot pick just one because every one of them spent time supporting and encouraging me through the hardest parts of the homework. The fellows all rotated the study rooms to make sure we were all progressing. If I didn’t understand something, I could ask multiple fellows who had different styles in explaining and teaching. Hearing something described a different way helped solidify my understanding of the more complex problems and helped me remember. Most people probably don’t need this but with my brain injury, I do. I absolutely love each and every one of them. I cannot emphasize enough how great they are. I will forever be grateful to Dan L., Ana V., Michael B., Dylan P., Logan A., and Patrick H.

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

Yes, of course. Not only am I more confident in going back to school but I’m also more confident that I can do more than I believed I could.

Princeton University Cohort

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

Prior to attending the Warrior-Scholar Project, my educational experience was quite limited. I had attended a few community college courses here and there part-time. 

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

I had very little virtual learning experience, aside from webinars, prior to WSP. WSP was an incredibly rigorous, yet rewarding experience. I learned a lot about myself and acquired some valuable skills along the way. 

Why were you excited to participate in WSP?

I was excited to participate in the program because I read about the experiences of others and was inspired by the impact it had on them. 

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

I believe both the problem-solving framework and academic reading/writing will be helpful as I pursue my degree. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

I was most looking forward to exploring physics during the STEM week. I’ve had some exposure to computer science and mathematics prior to the course but physics wasn’t a subject I had any recent experience with. 


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

My partners and I had the privilege of working with Professor Daniel Marlow on Galactic Exploration of Invisible Light, in which we got to observe radio emissions from the galaxy. This project was a real treat because it called us to draw upon the material we had covered in the reading/lectures and some newly minted Python skills to fully flush out what the data was offering. Not to mention, watching a refurbished Cold War-era dish remotely operated was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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

Literally every single instructor and fellow had a positive impact on me at some point during this course. The example problem breakdowns we collaborated with Lucas Fernandez and Hayden Treu on were particularly helpful in cementing the material we covered in the lectures. 

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

Absolutely, I am more confident than ever in my ability to succeed as a student after honing skills like time management, effective prioritization, and problem-solving.

Princeton University Cohort

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

I have always been the type of student who goes to class and then straight home. I never asked questions or participated in study groups or even took advantage of professors’ office hours. This was because I didn’t need to do that in grade school or even during the two Air Force technical training schools I attended. I was able to get great grades and understand the material without the need to ask questions, which is not the case anymore. That didn’t help me with projects where I had to work in teams because I was so accustomed to working alone, something that didn’t give me the opportunity to test my confidence. I did not consider myself to be a confident student for a number of reasons, from my age, my strong Puerto Rican accent, my physical appearance, and my visible/invisible disabilities. 

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

No, Warrior-Scholar Project was my first virtual learning experience. 


Why were you excited to participate in WSP?
The real reason I was very excited was that I was going to be able to visit, stay at, and take classes at an Ivy League school while getting to meet other veterans who, like me, believe in the power of education and who want to pursue higher education. I also wanted to add more people to my network, while at the same time sharing my networks with them, because I think that the veteran community is like a huge family and we should all be connected one way or another. 

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

I learned that I am capable of accomplishing great things and that if I give it my all, I can also help others see themselves reflected in me, believing in their endless possibilities and potential. I also learned that no matter where I came from or how my past looks, I can always strive for more if I really want to. My future is in my hands and there’s plenty of people ready and willing to give me a push when I need it. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

I was definitely looking forward to learning about coding, how it can be used, and the doors that will be opened for me in the future. Also, I was interested to learn how diverse STEM careers are, and how there’s something for everyone, something that I wasn’t aware of. 

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

For me, the entire team was excellent, from the professors to the brothers and sisters that attended the course with me! I am definitely grateful for that. 
I would like to mention a couple of them in particular. Let me start with Avery Carmichael, one of the fellows that was with us during humanities week. Avery is one of those people who doesn’t say much but is always there to be a cheerleader and to help you see and discover things about you that you thought were not possible. It is hard for me to relax and to feel free to be myself in front of groups, especially because I have been criticized in the past for that. Avery gave me the confidence and helped me feel at ease to be me, even from the distance over a computer screen.

Another person who I would like to thank and recognize is Professor Shaw, also from the humanities week. The first day he was with us, I was intimidated and even questioned if I had made the right decision when I accepted to attend the program. Then I gave him a chance to challenge me and to push me out of my comfort zone when it comes to books and reading selections. Professor Shaw is such a smart and eloquent human being and he made everyone feel okay to share conflicting opinions and learn how to use critical thinking in order to see history from another point of view. That was an eye-opener and something I will definitely use the rest of my life. 

Things I will also like to point out are Lucas’s personality, he is one of those people that everyone likes and can identify with in one way or another; Tyler‘s patience and wisdom while working with my group during the coding and research project, Jessica’s mellow vibes and listening skills. 

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

The answer is simple: absolutely!

The College of William and Mary was founded in 1693 and is a public research university. It is the only higher education in America that received its charter exclusively from the Crown under the Seal of the Privy Council. According to the school’s website, three U.S. Presidents received their education from the school: James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and John Tyler. The student-to-faculty ratio is one of the lowest in the nation at 12:1. This is the first year WSP has partnered with The College of William and Mary.

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