As a jackhammer blasted within earshot of campus, Phillip Kantor ’12 froze. “It sounded like a machine gun,” says the Afghanistan War veteran, recalling the moment from his first year at Pomona. “It startled me.”
That little jolt was out of the ordinary, though, and Kantor says Pomona has been a good fit for him since he enrolled here in 2010. “I’ve had many students thank me for my service, and it’s very nice,” he says. “I’m happy to talk about the path I took to get where I am.”
The 26-year-old economics major attended Miami University in his home state of Ohio before enlisting in the Marines. He was seeking direction, something he found through the discipline instilled in the corps and in his military training, which included studying Korean at the Defense Language Institute on his way to becoming an intelligence analyst. That eventually led him to a combat tour in Afghanistan in 2009, where he was stationed in Helmand Province and attached to a reconnaissance battalion which came under fire numerous times.
After his discharge from the military in 2010, Kantor looked at several colleges in Southern California, where his long-time girlfriend (and now fiancée) Erika Jones lives. He picked Pomona because he wanted a small liberal arts school.
While older than most students, the youthful-looking Kantor fits in well. He has many friends, studies on campus with them and is active with Sagehen Capital Management, a student-managed investment fund. “What I enjoyed about the Marines was the camaraderie,” Kantor says. “I get that same sense of camaraderie at Pomona College.”
He attends Pomona under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the supplemental Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, in which participating schools help fund tuition expenses that go beyond what the GI Bill pays for. When Pomona signed on for the Yellow Ribbon program in 2009, shortly after the new GI Bill went into effect, President David Oxtoby noted that the experience of returning veterans “would add a great deal to the conversations on campus and would strengthen our community in important ways.”
Kantor, too, believes his life experiences can add to the conversation. “In my Foreign Policy class I may have an insight into the on-the-ground reality of a theoretical foreign policy piece we’re reading,” he says. “However, in Calculus II, we’re all in the same boat.”
He never discusses his Marine Corps experience unnecessarily. But it does come up, both in the classroom and outside it.
“I tend to assert myself when I believe my background is relevant,” Kantor says. “Professor Elliott, my Foreign Policy professor, called on me last year in those situations. One of the nice things about Pomona is that others also have an opportunity to bring their life experiences to the table.”
For Kantor, the “table” is a full one. He arrives on campus at around 9 a.m., reviews class material, attends class, eats lunch with friends in Frary Dining Hall, heads to class again in the afternoon, studies or attends group or club meetings from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., then remains on campus to participate in a group project or listen to a lecture—or, he heads home to Pasadena. He approaches school like a Marine Corps assignment or a full-time job, leaving only when the work is finished.
Kantor did an internship at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters this summer, and he plans to go into the business world after graduation, though his plans are still forming.
“The Marine Corps gave me some really good habits, including a strong work ethic,” he says. “Now, Pomona is giving me the intellectual tools to take advantage of those habits.”
GI CECILS: Sagehens of many generations have found a stint in the military helped put them on unpredictable paths to Pomona:
Richard Gist ’49 was set on attending Cornell University, just like his father and grandfather before him. Raised in Pomona, he felt the namesake college was too close to home. But World War II was still raging when he turned 18 in 1943 and he soon found himself fighting as part of the Army’s 94th Infantry Division in Europe, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Coming home, Gist, like many of the friends he grew up with, eventually enrolled at Pomona College. They weren’t expecting to stay, but most all of them did. “After being away, Pomona seemed pretty good,” recalls Gist, now retired and living in Sacramento. “No one had the desire to get away for college and get away from home. We’d done that. It was just nice to be back on familiar territory again.” Twenty-one years old and probably the only student on campus with a leg amputation, Gist was elected president of the freshman class, which consisted of a mix of 18-year-olds who had come along after the war and older students like Gist whose college entry had been delayed by the conflict. But he made friends with both groups and graduated a year early. “It was just so different,” he says of that time of post-war transition on campus. “I don’t think it’s likely to ever be repeated.”
Growing up in East L.A. in the 1960s, Alex Gonzalez ’72 had little expectation of attending college. After high school, he and a buddy set off to enlist in the Navy. The Navy recruiter wasn’t in when they visited, though, and they wound up signing on for the Air Force. Gonzalez wouldn’t see his friend again for the next four years, but he saw the world while learning leadership skills and how to work within an organization. The military “exposed me to a much, much broader society,” he says. “What I learned was I could compete with anyone.” While stationed in the Philippines, he had plenty of time to read and consider his next move in life. Upon his discharge in 1967, Gonzalez enrolled at East L.A. College, where he met Edward Cisneros ’54, who told him about Pomona and encouraged Gonzalez to apply. Arriving at the age of 23 as a rare veteran on campus, Gonzalez was more seasoned than a typical straight-out-of-high-school student. “I was very clear on what my goals were,” he recalls. “I knew what I wanted to do and I really focused on the education that I got there.” Gonzalez went on to attend Harvard Law School and then to earn his Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Cruz on the way to a long career in higher education. Today he is president of Cal State Sacramento and a member of Pomona’s Board of Trustees. He credits military service for helping set his life course and without it, he says, “I would have never gone to Pomona.”
Matt Muller ’03 was “a classic smart but lazy high school student” before he surprised everyone by deciding to join the Marines. Muller knew he needed to gain maturity and discipline, and in the service he quickly shed pounds and his lackadaisical attitude. Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he worked for an off-base newspaper and, playing trumpet in the Marine Corps Band, he visited nations as disparate as Australia and the United Arab Emirates. The experience, he says, “opened up my eyes.” Post-Marines, Muller returned home to Sacramento eager to put the sort of discipline required to scrub toilets with a toothbrush to work on more rewarding intellectual pursuits. First enrolling in community college, he soon was set on pursuing a major in science, technology and society. It was available at Stanford, but he was looking for a smaller school and someone there pointed him to Pomona. Muller was skeptical about moving to Southern California, but he fell in love with the College upon visiting. Making the most of his time as a student, he helped organize Orientation Adventure trips and contributed to research on political campaign finance, among many other pursuits, on his way to graduating summa cum laude. “I was able to take advantage of a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise because I was willing to work like crazy,” says Muller, who went on to Harvard Law School and now is an attorney in the Bay Area focusing on immigration issues.