Veteran Voices: Meet US Marine Corps Sergeant Braden Smith ‘23

By: Stephen D'Angelo
Braden Smith

Sergeant Braden Smith ‘23 is a US Marine Corps veteran and undergraduate student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in applied economics and management from the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Growing up, Smith’s father and grandfathers told him stories about what it was like to serve in the Navy and Army during Vietnam and Desert Storm. Each had diverse experiences during their enlistments.

“In high school, I was not as academically focused as my peers, which significantly limited my exit opportunities once I graduated,” Smith says. “I knew I needed to chart the course in a different way than my friends, so, during junior year, I made the decision to enlist in the military.”

Learn more about Smith in this Veterans Voices Q&A.

What experiences or relationships inspired you to serve in the military? How did you come to serve in your branch of service?

I spoke to recruiters from all the different branches, but the one thing that resonated with me the most was from the Marine Corps recruiter. He had a saying that went, “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.” He spoke about the strong brotherhood that the organization held. The Marine Corps seemed to have embodied values of discipline and leadership, exactly what I needed at the time. This ultimately led me to choose this branch of service.

What were your first days of service like? How did you grow during your first few months of service?

The first few days of a thirteen-week journey through basic training were some of the most challenging and unforgiving days I have endured in my life. Take a newly minted eighteen-year-old kid, who graduated high school a month prior, and throw him into the array of the onboarding process of Marine Corps boot camp. As recruits, we were the bottom of the bottom, not even Marines yet, and were treated as such. The hardest part was that there was little sleep to go around, which made it challenging to stay cognizant of what was going on. We were not allowed to drink caffeine, and I assure you the food wasn’t all that appetizing.

What surprised me the most was how structured and organized the process was. There were ninety of us recruits within my platoon, and we did everything together. Yes, I mean everything. Being thrown in the mix with a bunch of other guys, you quickly learn that you must operate as a team or suffer the consequences. This experience built my leadership abilities and made me understand the components of communication and teamwork. Many times, you fail, or it was made to seem like you failed, so you become pretty resilient after a while.

Throughout the entire thirteen weeks, you are broken down as a civilian, and built back up as a Marine. I am proud to say I matured immensely during this process, developed the skills I was lacking, and learned many new things along the way.

To what parts of the world did your service take you? What was your job or assignment?

During my training phase and duty station, I spent time in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. I was not deployed overseas but spent most of my enlistment on two air bases within North Carolina. My job was to plan and execute US and overseas deployments for the thousands of Marines attached to my unit. I primarily advised executives on the operations and logistics of how Marines would be deployed, and the most cost-effective approach to doing so.

Many of the operations involved Marines deploying to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia to support combative and training missions. The best way to describe my work setting was similar to a bank vault, where it required multiple combinations to enter, and you were unable to bring in any outside electronics. I was fortunate enough to be forced, in a way, to read or study during times of slow work.

What is one of your most memorable experiences during your service? Why is it so meaningful to you?

My most memorable experience was when I was meritoriously promoted to the rank of corporal from lance corporal, in the second year of my enlistment. Essentially, I competed against seventy other candidates in a series of formal rounds (like an interview) consisting of military drills and knowledge tests. The judges, several high-ranking enlisted members, evaluated each candidate on their professionalism, tact, and demonstration of the Marine Corps values: honor, courage, and commitment. I was successful to the point of passing each round and being selected for early promotion.

This ultimately fast-tracked my career by over a year and put me in a significant leadership position to become a mentor to my peers. This meaningful experience taught me, relatively early within my career, that if I have the right mindset and put in the preparation for the challenges I face, I can achieve great strides and make a difference in the world around me.

Tell us about your transition to civilian life. What inspired you to pursue your degree at Cornell?

Braden Smith at Deutsche Bank

My senior leaders greatly encouraged me to take college classes and get a head start on my bachelor’s degree, as it added to my likelihood of being promoted to the next rank. After serving the required twenty-four months threshold to begin the classes, I started out with part-time courses in writing, math, and science. I really enjoyed the idea of eventually attending a full-time university, where I would be completely immersed in academia.

Six months before I was set to leave the military, I started thinking about where I would enjoy transferring to, and what school best aligned with my interests to pursue studies in economics and finance. I worked with an undergraduate veterans’ mentor, JD, from the non-profit Service2School, and he was extremely helpful in providing me advice throughout the process. JD strongly encouraged me to apply to the top schools within the country. Cornell, among other ivy league schools, was on my list, and I began writing essays and completing the transfer applications before the deadline.

In April of 2020, I received my acceptance letter to the Dyson school at Cornell, and gladly accepted. I was discharged from the Marine Corps in June, and then attended the Veterans’ Summer Bridge Program, taking Microeconomics and a plant science class. Then I matriculated in the fall as a sophomore, alongside about thirty other veterans.

Is there something you’re particularly excited to learn and experience at Dyson?

The Dyson curriculum is extremely well-rounded, with coverage across many of the key components of a business, e.g., law, ethics, finance, and accounting to name a few. The diverse set of skills that we accumulate in our toolbelt as Dyson undergraduates is fascinating. Having completed most of my core Dyson classes, I am excited to begin the finance concentration, and learn about the intricacies of how strategic financial decisions are made at the corporate level.

Billions of dollars in the primary and secondary financial markets are transacted daily, which provides a significant opportunity to learn why and how it’s happening. Having aspirations of working in the financial industry, I want to learn as much as I can, and get the most out of my undergraduate experience as possible. I want to take what I learn here and apply it to the real world, and to be the best I can be.

Describe your favorite moment at Cornell so far.

My favorite moment at Cornell thus far was with my friend Sharon at her apartment in the spring of my sophomore year. I had just completed a final super-day interview for an investment bank but had a prelim for Managerial Accounting just 45 minutes after. With 15 minutes to go until my prelim, I received a phone call congratulating me on my offer to join their firm for the following summer. I was ecstatic, and could not believe that all my preparation, interviews, and knowledge came to fruition, but I knew that I couldn’t celebrate just yet, as I had to focus on completing an exam. Throughout the test, it was very hard to focus, but I ultimately pulled through with time to spare. I then called my friends and family to tell them the good news. Gladly, I also did well on the prelim.

What’s next for you?

When I was transitioning out of the Marine Corps, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in finance, so I began speaking to many veterans across Wall Street, to learn about their experiences and figure out what best aligned with my background. I spoke to bankers in equity research, sales and trading, investment banking, and asset management, in addition to seeking a mentor within the non-profit American Corporate Partners—I highly advise any transitioning service members to utilize this non-profit, as I was paired with a mentor who had significant experience in the industry. My job within the Marine Corps of advising executives on overseas deployments combined with the soft skills I developed as an enlisted Marine greatly aligned with the responsibilities and expectations of investment bankers.

Once I got to Cornell, I joined the Cornell Investment Banking Club (CIBC), and Phi Gamma Nu business fraternity, and the members of both organizations greatly helped me build my technical knowledge of the field. I was then fortunate enough to work as an investment banking summer analyst in the industrials group of Deutsche Bank in the summer of 2021 and will be joining Lazard next summer in a similar capacity. I am excited to begin my journey on Wall Street, and appreciate all the support from Cornell, Dyson, its faculty, and the students to position me where I am today.