Soldier or Civilian, I’m Living a Life of Service

Image by Samuel Innocent, president of the City College Veterans Association and a Colin Powell Fellow (as told to and edited by Amanda Krupman)

[Ed. Note: This summer, we launched the Powell Semester in Washington program. Ten CCNY students are sharing housing in Washington, D.C., as they intern at organizations including the Center for American Progress, Powell Tate, and the Washington Center, and in government offices such as the U.S. Department of State and the Office of Legislative Affairs. We've asked them to give us updates on their experiences and consider their personal stake in the work. We will be posting their responses throughout the coming weeks. Our first post comes from Samuel Innocent, who is interning at the National Disability Rights Network. ]

Interning with the National Disability Rights Network [NDRN] this summer is an opportunity to expand my involvement with veteran rights, as the organization seeks to expand its veteran outreach program. As a veteran myself, helping disabled vets come back from war and the service is a near and dear topic: These are alpha males and females, once in the best shape of their lives, who now have to adapt their lives to their disabilities.

I learned early about adapting to changing circumstances. I grew up in many different places in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. My father was in and out of our lives, and my mother was forced to move a lot with me and my three sisters, trying to find stable housing. I went to multiple elementary schools and two different high schools. I learned how to make friends quickly because I knew I might move soon. It wasn’t a bad childhood: we wanted for a lot, but we didn’t need for much.

After I graduated high school, I enrolled in Farmingdale State College. I was living on my own for the first time, and working at Walmart. I was trying to do too many things at once and struggling. So I decided to enlist in the Army. I went to school at night, and completed an associate's degree while stationed at Fort Drum. In 2006, I was deployed to Afghanistan, where I worked as a medic. I had some idea that I wanted to go into medicine, because my mom was a nurse. Among many “island families,” medicine is it, because it’s stable. I thought I’d be a physician’s assistant [PA], so after seven years of service, I returned to New York and enrolled in City College.

The transition from the military to college was not the easiest. Being in the military means living a highly structured, highly disciplined life. You always knew what you’d be doing, what you’d be wearing—there was no room to second-guess anything. High school can be similar. But college is the first place where you are expected to be fully independent. I thought I would go through the program,, hit the prerequisites—go about things in a militaristic way, which I now see isn’t the best way. You have to be open. Though I still wanted to be a PA, I began thinking differently: I was only getting one opportunity to be an undergraduate, so I just decided at one point to do anything I wanted to do. I started taking classes outside of those required for my biology major, which in turn led me to declare a second major in political science.

I discovered that I wanted to advocate and educate my community about voting rights, about taking part in your local neighborhoods and governments. I’m Haitian, and a lot of Haitians say they don’t need to vote because it’s not going to make a difference. But at the end of the day, this council member or this representative wants their job, so come election time, they are going to listen, and that’s when you can make a difference.

Here at NDRN, I am able to see firsthand how policy works on the hill. I’m realizing how much of an effect lobbying can have. Since I’ve been here, I’ve traveled to San Antonio for NDRN's Task and Training Summit and met with the executive director of Student Veterans of America, where we discussed reasonable accommodations and access for disabled veterans in schools. Now I’m working with NDRN on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, calling senators and representatives’ offices and giving input on the bill.

Going forward, I hope that this internship will help me better connect CCNY vets with existing resources. Vets face a slew of issues. When you’re coming back home, you’re likely coming back without the same support network than you would have had when you had when you were 18 or 19. But there are services out there that can help.

I still want to be a PA, but also an advocate for low-income and disabled populations. As a vet, I’ve found that once you serve, you have the mentality that you must always serve. I’m still redefining to myself what I can do in the world.