Five years ago, Phillip Sheldon was standing in a hole he dug while deployed in Afghanistan as a machine-gunner with the Marines.
As he stood there, he wondered where life would lead him.
Sheldon soon found himself emailing the Office of Undergraduate Admission at William & Mary, hoping to find that answer.
“I feel more humbled than anything that I can be here today looking back at that point five years ago,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon, 26, aims to major in international relations at W&M — a path he believes he is well prepared for.
His career in the military kept him traveling. He was first deployed in Afghanistan, then left for Romania on his second deployment, finding time to visit Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan before returning to the United States.
Travel was not new to Sheldon, who before joining the Marines lived overseas with his father, a diplomat with the U.S. Agency for International Development. They lived in Senegal, Italy and Ethiopia, which Sheldon said gave him insight into other cultures.
“I grew up having a good grasp of intercultural communication,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon has an appetite for adventure: he has visited 25 countries, hiked 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail and worked as an outdoor instructor for REI.
During his time at REI, Sheldon attended Northern Virginia Community College. When he heard about the opportunity to transfer to a four-year university, he sent applications to George Washington University, the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and W&M.
“What drew me the most to William and Mary is it’s a smaller school … [and] with its smaller size, I felt like I had more engagement with the professors and I could also engage my peers more,” Sheldon said. “I felt that going to a larger school, a lot of the stories that a student body may have can get lost with a large [class] size.”
Sheldon was accepted by both W&M and the University of Virginia, but he chose W&M for its academic rigor and international relations program. As a former foreign security force adviser with experience in international security cooperation, he learned how to train foreign militaries. When he enrolled at W&M, he recognized the overlap between his position and his academic interests.
“A lot of these ideas that I learned while I was going through the foreign security force adviser course — like being able to speak with an interpreter, learning the different laws and the international law behind it, the reason why we have these programs, why they exist to bolster our relationship with NATO, to have that presence there too — a lot of that coexists with the programs here,” Sheldon said.
On his experience as a transfer student, Sheldon noted that he had some credit-related issues due to NOVA’s standard of curriculum in mathematics and the absence of a statistics course. His math courses consequently did not transfer to W&M. Despite losing credits, Sheldon said he is grateful for the W&M’s advising system, which he has found helpful in navigating academic requirements.
During orientation, Sheldon said he and other transfers struggled with making assumptions about each other. With the help of small-group discussions held after orientation sessions, he realized appearances can be deceiving, both in older and younger students.
“One of the many assumptions that exists out there for college students at large is [that] freshmen just lived in one town for their entire life, and they never pursued any type of intercultural training and so they’ve only just had that one experience,” Sheldon said. “When I was in my German 150 class today, I figured out that there [were two] freshmen that grew up overseas in Lithuania, some in Europe — a larger part of Europe as well and a few different countries. And so they, while being 18 or 19 and a little bit younger than most of the transfers, they still had varying experiences even though they were freshmen.”
Sheldon, who is a member of the Student Veterans Association, said that he finds the shared goal of obtaining a degree that exists between students and student veterans to be one unifying reason for all students to connect with each other. Despite differences between students and student veterans, reaching out to others is critical to understanding what you have in common with someone else, he said.
“We are unified when we start talking to each other, we learn that ‘Wow, there’s a lot of experiences that we also have in common,’” Sheldon said. “We might not necessarily be the same age or been in the military or in other paths of life, but we can find those shared commonalities, and we can find other things that we have in common as well.”
While serving in Afghanistan, Sheldon saw friends killed in action. He said that the importance of reaching out to others grows when someone is trying to get through that kind of pain.
“Being in Afghanistan, unfortunately there are people who I was friends with that can’t be here today,” Sheldon said. “It’s a little bit more difficult for veterans who have these more traumatic experiences to be able to share with the campus. I encourage veterans and any students to be able to talk about them to us, because that’s how we learn, how we appreciate other people.”
As he begins a new chapter in his life at the W&M, Sheldon has gotten involved in several ways. He serves as goalie of the ice hockey club team and is running for transfer outreach and liaison positions involving veterans and students. He said he looks forward to getting involved in more student leadership positions and activities.
“When I go back to that point of my friends not being here, I think about that a lot where, unfortunately, they didn’t have the ability to go to college,” Sheldon said. “But I’m sitting here today being able to say that I’m going to the second-oldest college in the nation. There’s not many things I pride myself more on.”