Meet The Enlisted Veterans Who Got Into Stanford & Wharton

Florida-born Devan Trammel left home at 14 years old.

A few years later, he met an ex-bomb technician in the gym who’d lost his eyesight. Despite going blind while deployed in the Middle East, this man said he wouldn’t have gone back in time to change a thing; it was worth it for the people he’d met and the skills he’d acquired. “That really impacted what service can do for someone,” explains Trammel. “I joined the military right away.”

He served on the bomb squad for seven years, first in Cambridge, England, where he traveled across Europe and Africa, and then in Charleston, South Carolina. A few years into his eight-year service, he helped found a tech accelerator at the Pentagon to get tools into the hands of troops as fast as possible. There, his entrepreneurial spirit was revived.

“I realized just how long I’d been an entrepreneur,” explains Trammel. “I’d done so many things since the age of 14 to make ends meet and put a roof over my head.”

‘I WANTED TO LAY MY LIFE ON THE LINE’

Throughout his enlisted career, Trammel studied courses online in the evenings and on weekends. Each time he moved time zones, he’d transfer to a different school — studying at a total of four universities. When he met a friend outside of the military who encouraged him to think about grad school, his excitement about the possibility was overshadowed by self-doubt. “I was getting my degree online, and I didn’t think any of the top business schools would want me,” he explains.

With a GPA of 3.2 and a GRE score of 324, Trammel got accepted to Stanford Graduate School of Business — before he even completed his undergraduate degree. He will begin this fall. “I didn’t have phenomenal quantitative aspects of my application,” Trammel tells Poets&Quants.

“I wanted to lay my life on the line; I talked about my flaws, about human characteristics, and what my strengths are because, frankly, I don’t consider them academic.”

APPLYING TO AN MBA AS AN ENLISTED VET: “ENLISTED VETS’ BACKGROUND AND EXPERIENCE MAKE THEM RESOURCEFUL PROBLEM SOLVERS”

Devan Trammel: “If you take that same amount of energy you used in enlisted service and applied it to business school admissions, I have no doubt you’ll be extremely successful”

Like Trammel, many enlisted veterans doubt their ability to get into B-school.

According to Alexander Emmert, 2020 Wharton School grad and ex-nuclear submarine officer, getting into an MBA program as an officer is a more straightforward path. For enlisted vets, it’s more challenging; unlike officers, many enlisted vets don’t have an undergraduate degree once they leave the military. Further, most have a smaller network of enlisted folks that are applying to MBA programs. With fewer examples of enlisted vets graduating B-school, many feel that they don’t have a chance in the MBA world — or that they don’t fit in.

Emmert is the CEO of Service to School, a nonprofit that provides free college and graduate school application counseling to U.S. military veterans and service members. He believes that enlisted vets do belong in MBA programs — and that their unique experience is an asset. He reminds enlisted service members that their enlisted service is just as valuable as that of an officer.

“As an officer, you’re more focused on administration, and as an enlisted veteran, you’re really focused on doing the work. What comes with that is a sense of humility, empathy, and ability to overcome adversity,” he explains.

“Even at very junior levels, enlisted members have several people they’re accountable for,” continues Emmert. “Enlisted vets’ background and experience make them resourceful problem solvers”

AUSTIN COX: ‘I FOUND A LOT OF JOY AT THE INTERSECTION OF COMMUNITY AND SOCIAL IMPACT’

Alexander Emmert: “Enlisted vets’ background and experience make them resourceful problem solvers”

When Emmert attended Wharton, his Veterans Club was made up of 90% officers and 10% enlisted folks. He believes that one of the ways to up enlisted representation in business school is for them to take opportunities while they’re serving to get their degrees. “This allows you to apply to grad school once you get out,” he says.

But for Texas-raised Austin Cox, he left his six years of service with only one year of post-secondary studies under his belt. He dropped out of college in his freshman year, instead choosing to run a small business where he taught aquatic adaptability to toddlers, triathletes, double amputee veterans, and cancer patients. “I found a lot of joy at the intersection of community and social impact,” he says. “That led me to train for the Navy Special Operations.”

In total, he was in the military for just over six years and was twice-deployed. When he left the military in 2019, he decided to focus on completing his undergraduate degree. He got into Columbia University, and soon after his move to New York City, the pandemic hit. While studying online wasn’t the university experience he hoped for, he says he “put on the blinders” and focused on finishing his undergraduate studies as fast as he could so that he could apply to grad school — something he’d been dreaming about for a long time.

He applied to five schools: Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, The Wharton School, Kellogg School of Management, and Columbia Business School. He was accepted to The Wharton School, became the Veteran’s Club president, and graduated spring 2023.

CONNECTING TO OTHER VETS: ‘THIS SENSE OF BELONGING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT UNDERLYING THEME’

Austin Cox: “Often, when enlisted vets reach out to colleges for admissions support, they’ll be paired with an officer. Remember that when you’re out of the military, we’re all just vets”

For Cox, connecting with other vets was paramount. He was paired with a mentor through Service To School’s network throughout the duration of his application process. Mostly, though, this organization instilled the idea that he belonged in an MBA setting — and that it was possible to get into his dream school. “I think this sense of belonging is the most important underlying theme, regardless whether you’re enlisted or an officer,” he says.

Cox advises enlisted vets to remove their apprehension about the divide between enlisted and officer members. “Often, when enlisted vets reach out to colleges for admissions support, they’ll be paired with an officer,” he says. “Remember that when you’re out of the military, we’re all just vets.”

Speaking to other vets helped Trammel, too; in fact, he connected with Cox — who generously offered his time — during his research phase. “Out of the five schools I applied to, I reached out to veterans clubs and each one had a veteran who was nice enough to spend hours of time with me on the phone,” he explains. “Through that, I got to know the culture of each school in an unfiltered way from each of the veterans.”

“I fell in love with Stanford over all else, which was tough to grapple with, knowing how hard it was to get into, ” he continues. “Stanford took a big chance on me; somehow they were happy with my non-traditional path.”

THE POWER OF STORIES: ‘AT EVERY STAGE OF THE PROCESS, I THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT MY COMPETITION WOULD DO’

For Trammel, figuring out how to tell his story was crucial to getting into Stanford GSB.

He leveraged Service To School’s support, which he says helped to lay the foundation for his success. Mainly, it helped him to shift his mindset; his big ‘aha’ moment was when he realized that he was competing against his peers. “That was the biggest breakthrough for me,” he says. “At the end of the day, enlisted vets are competing against academy graduates, pilots, Navy SEALs, and amazing people in all of their own rights.”

“At every stage of the process, I thought about what my competition would do,” continues Trammel. “I would think, what would the F-16 pilot write in this section? And what can I write to completely break the norm?”

To do so, he didn’t tell any deployment or tactical stories; he wanted to stand out from the crowd. “My resume says that I diffuse bombs and that I started a tech accelerator. But in every other part of my application, I talked about huge mistakes I made in my career. I think transparency matters,” he says.

When it comes to telling a powerful story, Trammel advises that enlisted vets “be relentless.”

“If you take that same amount of energy you used in enlisted service and applied it to business school admissions, I have no doubt you’ll be extremely successful,” he says.

THE VET LINK EVENT: HOW ENLISTED VETS CAN PUT THEIR BEST FOOT FORWARD

From June 23-24, Service To School is hosting a VetLink Summit at the University of Chicago.

Trammel and Cox will be sitting on the MBA panel where they’ll get to share their experience of their successful MBA application process. The audience of enlisted veterans will also have the chance to hear from MBA administrators who will share the value that they see enlisted vets bringing to B-school. Here, they’ll learn how they can put their best foot forward.

“Enlisted vets will be reminded that MBAs want them in their programs, and that they shouldn’t sell themselves short,” Emmert says.

DON’T MISS: ‘SERVICE TO SCHOOL’: MEET THE CEO & WHARTON MBA WHOSE MISSION IS TO HELP VETERANS SUCCEED IN SCHOOL or A MILITARY VETERAN’S JOURNEY TO AN MBA ADMIT

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