It was just a small detail: a logo on a shirt.
But the butterfly effect of that logo led to the creation of a scholarship program for veterans at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
A year later, two first-year ASU Law students are the initial beneficiaries of the program. And to both, news of the scholarship seemed too good to be true.
“Oh my goodness,” said Christopher Senn, recalling the moment he first found out. “It was quite the surprise, to say the least.”
Likewise for fellow recipient Conner Pursell.
“I was surprised and amazed,” he said. “But very, very happy.”
How it all started
In a video shown last October during the annual ASU Law Scholarship Luncheon, a student was discussing his volunteer work at the Arizona Legal Center. The U.S. Marine Corps logo on his shirt caught the eye of audience member Deborah Carstens, whose late husband, Bill, was a lawyer who had served in the Marines.
Curious to know more, Carstens approached ASU Law administrators. She learned that veterans were a priority for the law school, but that tuition was a barrier for some. The GI Bill helps veterans and active-duty military personnel pay for college, but there are caps on the benefits, which are typically used for an undergraduate degree. To pursue a law degree, most would need to pay out of pocket or receive scholarships.
So Carstens, who said she was inspired by ASU’s commitment to veterans, made the decision to fund a scholarship program for Marines and veterans of military special operations forces.
“We share Deb’s passion for supporting those who have so graciously served our country, and we thank her for this special and generous donation,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “We are honored to welcome these students and help prepare them for success in the next chapter of their lives.”
Band of law-school brothers
Pursell, 31, is a longtime Marine.
“Ten years active duty, and I’ve been in the Reserves for four,” he said. “A month after I graduated high school, I went into boot camp for the Marine Corps.”
In 2015, he enrolled at the University of Texas with a plan to attend law school afterward. And when his two brothers, who are both lawyers, moved to Arizona, that drew his attention to ASU Law. He applied and was excited when he found out he had been accepted.
“I was at the admitted-students day in December, and I was talking to Dean Sylvester at the reception,” he said. “I was telling him that I was in the Marine Corps and had just gotten out. He told me about the scholarship program and said they had just announced it a few days prior, and he was really excited about it.”
Sylvester encouraged Pursell to apply and explained the process to him. He also talked about Carstens.
“He told me she was a wonderful woman and her husband was a Marine, and that she wanted to help Marines specifically,” Pursell said.
In April, right before he graduated from Texas, an email delivered the good news: He had been awarded the scholarship.
As he begins his journey toward a juris doctor degree, the initial coursework has been as demanding as he expected. But he has gotten plenty of advice from his brothers. And his experience in the Marines has helped prepare him for the challenge.
“The military caused you to be in high-stress environments, where you actually had to be able to calm yourself and think about what needs to happen and prioritize, and I think law school is kind of teaching the same thing,” he said. “You’re in stressful environments, and you need to prioritize and determine how much effort to put into things. It is a different discipline, but I think it crosses over in how it trains you to think about things.”
And law school may help him cross back over to the military, as a judge advocate general. After attending a JAG panel during one of his first weeks at ASU Law, he decided it’s a career he’d like to pursue.
“I’m going to start applying for the JAG program in almost all the branches and see what happens,” he said.
‘One of the best decisions I have made’
Senn, 24, enlisted in the Marines in 2011, where he served as a drone pilot. He then attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, worked for Raytheon and taught for two years at Kansas State University before applying and being accepted to ASU Law.
Although friends had advised him to take the summer off to prepare his mind for the academic rigors of law school, he decided to keep working to prepare for the financial rigors of law school.
“I was working out in Colorado for a summer job as a Department of Defense contractor,” he said. “And while I was on the road heading into the office with a few of my colleagues, I received an email from the university, stating that I was the recipient of this wonderful scholarship.”
It literally seemed too good to be true.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” he said with a laugh. “I had to contact the law school just to make sure it was legitimate. I thought it was possibly spam, but it turned out to be true.”
True, and to some degree, life-altering. The scholarship, Senn says, will relieve him of the financial pressures that might otherwise have shaped his career path.
“It was quite a relief to know that I did not have to worry about my financial obligations going through law school as much as I previously would have,” he said. “This gives me a higher level of freedom on my employment decisions within the legal field, now that I won’t have to focus as much on how much I’m getting paid.”
He says the scholarship is just one of many ways ASU has shown its appreciation for veterans.
“I’ve attended four higher-education institutions, and ASU, by far, has the most amenities and resources for veterans, based off of my experience,” he said. “I’ve been a faculty member at a four-year university, as well as a student at three, and the resources and the effort put in … here at ASU are the best I’ve seen.”
He added, “I would definitely recommend ASU to other veterans. It’s been one of the best decisions I have made.”
About the scholarships
The program offers up to four full-ride scholarships through the duration of law school. Two of the scholarships are reserved for individuals who have served in the Marine Corps, and two are reserved for veterans of the special operations forces, such as Army Rangers or Green Berets, Navy SEALs or Marine MARSOC or RECON.
Senn has been awarded the Richard Romley Scholarship. Romley, who served as the Maricopa County attorney from 1989 to 2004, is a former Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran who received several commendations for his service, including the Purple Heart. He is a graduate of both ASU and ASU Law.
Pursell has been awarded the R.J. Mitchell Scholarship. Mitchell, an ASU graduate, is a Marine veteran who completed two combat tours in Iraq. He was awarded the Navy Cross for a distinguished act of combat valor in which he was wounded while saving the lives of several trapped Marines.
"I wish Conner and Christopher the best,” Carstens said. “They carry the names of two high-performing Marines."
For more information on applying for one of the scholarships, contact Eric Border at email@example.com.