Veteran Spotlight

Catherine Draves, U.S. Navy

  Catherine Draves 

As a non-traditional, veteran, first-generation student, my concerns around picking a college were a little different than the average student. After seven years serving as a military police officer in the Navy, I was ready to pursue my dream to become an attorney. I am self-supporting, so I transitioned to the Naval Reserves and started my educational journey by earning my A.A.S. in Paralegal Studies from SUNY Broome.

Throughout my time there I was employed full-time as a litigation paralegal at Aswad & Ingraham, LLP in Binghamton. Both my supervising attorney and the owner of the firm are Cornell Law School alums. I remember being so impressed by both their breadth of knowledge and the professional way they conducted themselves. Their strong example and investment in my development really cemented my desire to continue my education and made Cornell high on my list.

I was accepted to every school I applied to. Part of the reason I chose Cornell was the exceptional uniqueness of the ILR curriculum. I feel that it is both more comprehensive and flexible than other, similar programs. I am becoming well-rounded and exploring my interests in equal measure.

Practicality was high on my list of considerations as well. Sometimes life intervenes and plans change, so it was important to have an undergraduate major with a high level of employability. The flexibility and rigor of ILR provides options with respect to employment after graduation, even without a graduate degree. Cornell also offers 100% yellow-ribbon match for its undergraduate GI Bill students. This made attendance a practical reality financially. The student services provided by ILR are extremely helpful and made the transfer process seamless.

I continue to discover reasons to love Cornell. I have had the privilege to be lectured by experts, participated in a study featured on NPR, and become the president of the Undergraduate Veterans Association in the last year. The University really makes me feel like I am limited only by my own ambition. Feel free to reach out to me at with any questions.


Patrick O'Neal, U.S. Navy

 Alexandra Kemp Alexandra Kemp 

In his final semester at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Patrick O’Neal ’19 is passionate about recruiting veterans to Cornell. Prior to Cornell, Patrick, a Sacramento native, spent six years in the US Navy as a Search and Rescues Helicopter Crew Chief.

After separating from the navy in August of 2013, Patrick spent the next two years undergoing surgery and rehabilitation from injuries suffered during his enlistment. Following his recovery, Patrick decided to attend college.

“I‘d never been good at school. I have dyslexia and it made things very hard. In fact, my high school GPA was something around a 2.1. I made up my mind that I was going to do it and apply the same work ethic that I used in the military.”

After attending community college for two years, Patrick graduated Phi Theta Kappa from the College of San Mateo with an Associate’s Degree in Communication in May of 2017. Following graduation, Patrick transferred to Cornell.

“It was crazy! I never imagined that I would attend one of the greatest universities in the world.”

Patrick hit the ground running at Cornell by making the dean’s list every semester. Eventually, Patrick became the President of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association and later an admissions intern working with veteran recruitment.

Patrick is passionate about getting the word out to veterans about Cornell. “I believe many student veterans are underselling their ability. They don’t think attending an Ivy is attainable and I am fighting to change that belief.”

Patrick will be the first in his family to graduate from college. After graduation, he hopes to begin a technology consulting role with one of the top firms in the US.


Alexandra Kemp, U.S. Navy

 Alexandra Kemp Alexandra Kemp

A Dallas native, Alexandra Kemp joined the Navy in 2004 to save lives. She spent her career specializing in combat medicine and pharmacy, but her true dream was becoming a leader. After advancing through enlisted ranks, she became devoted to the personal and professional development of her junior Sailors. In 2017, an unexpected illness halted her career and forced her to medically retire after 13 years. Searching for a new purpose, she applied and was accepted to Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration. Immediately upon acceptance, she was embraced by the small veteran population at Cornell and was appointed Secretary of CUVA (Cornell’s Undergraduate Veterans Association). Along with all student veterans at Cornell, and the Ivy League Veterans Council, she plans to empower military veterans as they transition from the battlefield to a rigorous top-tier university. 
“I want veterans to know there is life after the military,” said Alexandra. “They need to know there are opportunities that aren’t being disclosed to them. Their experiences in the military have prepared them to succeed at an Ivy League university like Cornell, they just aren’t being informed. It's a shame that the majority of veterans never use their GI Bill or waste their hard-earned benefits on ‘for-profit’ schools. Non-profit organizations like Warrior-Scholar Project, Service2School, and many others were created by veterans for veterans to provide transition support. Not to mention the incredibly strong networking groups they become a part of for the rest of their lives.”   
Kemp was one of five student veterans who participated in Cornell University’s first Veterans Summer Bridge Program. The program was designed to support veterans to pursue a world-class education and earn a Cornell degree. It consists of three tuition-free credit-bearing courses, including a Strategies for College Success for Veterans course, and several community-building activities in collaboration with CUVA. She encourages veterans to apply to Cornell, and if accepted they can expect a strong foundation to build on through their academic program, and the opportunity to become a trailblazer in the efforts to recruit more veterans to Cornell. She hopes to empower veterans to take that leap now, not later.

Chris Gyurgyik, U.S. Marine Corps

 Chris Gyurgyik Chris Gyurgyik

Chris Gyurgyik is from Cleveland, Ohio and served in the Marine Corps for 4 years, primarily as a Field Artilleryman under the Kings of Battle, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines. In 2017, he separated honorably as a Sergeant. When not training with his unit, Chris, an avid marksman, spent his free time participating in marksmanship matches, as well as teaching both civilians and military personnel as a small arms weapon instructor.
One important aspect Chris learned during his transition from the military to higher education is to keep on pushing. The stressors of being an undergraduate student (while vastly different from the military lifestyle) are still barriers from achieving one’s goal. It is important to research the myriad of resources offered to veterans both on- and off-campus. Currently, Chris is pursuing an undergraduate degree in computer science and is a member of the Aerial Robotics electrical team.

Luke Opyd, U.S. Navy


With his Cornell degree in sight, Luke Opyd ’18 has a message for military veterans who may be wary of their chances for success at an Ivy League university.
“I would tell them ‘You belong here,’” says Opyd, who served in the U.S. Navy for six years. “Veterans don’t think that they belong at these top institutions. They think that it’s completely unobtainable, but I think that when you remove that idea from the equation, then they are very competitive and can bring a lot to the table as a student at a university such as Cornell.”
Opyd enlisted in the Navy in 2008 as an aviation electrician, serving in Japan for four years and then in San Diego, completing his military service as a petty officer second class. He received several awards and decorations, including the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Joint Meritorious Unit Award for his participation in Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military’s relief operation after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. While enlisted, he earned an associate’s degree in accounting from Post University.
He became interested in Cornell after learning about the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“I thought that it would be a challenge, and it also combines all of my favorite subjects into one major, be it economics, statistics, labor relations, collective bargaining, labor law, labor and employment law,” he says. “That’s a diverse set of subjects, and I had a profound interest in all of them.”
During fall 2017, Opyd worked as an intern at a San Diego law firm. After graduation, he plans to return to the firm as a project analyst and hopes to earn his law degree.
“Receiving professional advice from the incredible professors in ILR helped me discover what my professional interests actually are,” says Opyd. “There are many different areas of the law, of course, but taking a wide range of classes helped me fine-tune my professional trajectory by exposing me to many facets of the law.”
At Cornell, Opyd has promoted the interests of veterans in higher education as a participant in the Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps veterans transition from military to university life; as an ambassador for Service to School, a national organization that consults veterans applying to college; and as a member, and now president, of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association (CUVA).
Veterans arrive at college campuses with several qualities that can help them, Opyd says, such as professionalism gained on their military assignments and experience overcoming challenges.
“They’ve been through boot camp, right? The military is a mental, emotional and physical test and you really learn who you are after that experience,” he says. “I think that experience in itself, not to mention being older and being exposed to other parts of the world that maybe younger students haven’t experienced, gives veterans unique assets to succeed at a place like Cornell.”

David Outlaw, U.S. Navy


David Outlaw is from Natchitoches, Louisiana and is a senior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. David, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, served as a logistics specialist on a nuclear-powered submarine in Hawaii and went on to manage a supply detachment in Italy.  

After hanging up his uniform and transitioning to Cornell, David joined Starwood Hotels and Resorts for multiple internship and externship experiences in operations, including the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, The Westin New York at Times Square, The St. Regis San Francisco and The St. Regis New York. He currently serves as the co-founder and President of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association.

Lisa Hart, U.S. Army


Lisa Hart is from Granada Hills, California and is a recent 2016 graduate of Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences. Lisa, a veteran of the U.S. Army, served as a preventive dentistry specialist during Operation Iraqi Freedom from November 2009 to February 2011. When not overseas, Lisa assisted in creating a physical training regimen and deployment training protocol to ensure all soldiers in her Company were fit and trained for combat.
Lisa’s transition from soldier life to full-time student included working part-time off campus at a coffee shop and spearheading Cornell’s Pre-Dental Society. Lisa chose to major in Nutritional Sciences as her experiences in the military revealed the importance of nutrition and preventive health care. Her experiences at Cornell have been rewarding, as she was able to continue her education towards her ultimate goal of becoming a dentist in the U.S. Army. She will be working towards a year-long Master’s program in Physiology starting this fall before applying to dental school in June of 2017.

Seamus Murphy, U.S. Army


Seamus Murphy is from Binghamton, New York and is spending one final semester, the fall of 2016, at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He will use this time to finish his degree in International Agriculture and Rural Development with a minor in Business. Seamus joined the U.S. Army in 2005 after completing Infantry OSUT training at Fort Benning, GA. He was then assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division, Savannah, GA, and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom to Ramadi, Iraq for 15 months in 2007 and Baghdad, Iraq in 2010 for 12 months. During this time, he earned the rank of Staff Sergeant. After completing six years of service, Seamus exited the military in 2012 to pursue a college degree. 
As the Founding President of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association, Seamus has worked diligently to bring about change for Cornell’s veteran population. He would like to see a physical space dedicated to veterans on campus and the creation of a staff member to act as a liaison between the university, the Veterans Affairs administration, and potential employers, before he graduates. Seamus is currently spending this summer abroad, working to help empower smallholder farmers in western Kenya.