Veterans Enrich Campus Life

When I began working with student veterans early in 2010, Georgetown University had no cohesive program in place for transitioning military. Today Georgetown boasts a robust student veterans program that not only offers essential services but also provides countless opportunities for social exchange, academic growth, and public service. The dramatic turnaround is due largely to initiatives taken by student veterans themselves. I have written before about how veterans enhance the learning experience for all students (Why Professors Love Veterans, Veterans Bring Diversity to Campus), but the contributions of this dynamic group extend far beyond the classroom. All over the country. student veterans are taking the lead in transforming their campuses, improving conditions for fellow veterans and enriching campus life for everyone.

Two Air Force veterans, Erik Brine and Karen Courington, organized the Georgetown University Student Veterans Organization (GUSVA), of which I became the faculty advisor. As the group's first president, Brine worked to increase Yellow Ribbon benefits for Georgetown's transitioning military men and women and, in collaboration with Marine Veteran Alan Ardelean, to improve their health-care coverage. That first year, GUSVA officers and I spent many hours meeting with administrators to discuss veterans' needs and helping current and potential student veterans to navigate the university bureaucracy. Brine and other officers shared their own experiences financing their educations with G.I. Bill benefits and dealing with the V.A. However, it was clear to all of us that what we really needed was a central office to dispense information and advise student veterans.

Through active and effective lobbying, student veterans were instrumental in convincing the university to open a Veterans Office. By December 2011, we had a fulltime coordinator, David Shearman, who has become an essential resource for all our student veterans. As an Army veteran himself, Shearman understands the financial, academic, health, and social issues that veterans face. As a student who has done both undergraduate and graduate work at Georgetown, he is familiar with the campus and with university policies. Student veterans feel comfortable with him because he has been in their shoes. Shearman remarks that veterans sometimes think, rightly or wrongly, that those who have not served cannot grasp the challenges they face. He explains that "having a veteran on staff to help with the transition to university life provides a trusted ally they can turn to. It also conveys something important about the culture of the institution that has hired a veteran to ease their transition." Shearman has initiated many programs, among them one for women veterans and another, which is activated as needed, for veterans struggling with trauma.

However, not all important initiatives originate in the Veterans Office. Last year Colby Howard, a Marine veteran who was then president of the GUSVA, worked with the Admissions Office to create an outreach program to encourage more veterans to apply to Georgetown. The Georgetown Veterans Admissions Project (GVAP) sends GUSVA officers to military bases and two-year colleges to inform transitioning military about admission requirements and application procedures. The Admissions Office also offers special campus tours for veterans.
This year Air Force veteran Anthony DeMarino began working with the local V.A. Medical Center to reach out to the campus veteran population. Realizing that returning veterans are often not aware of what medical benefits they are entitled to or how to access them, DeMarino arranged for representatives of the V.A. to come to campus once a month to assess veterans' needs, enroll them in the appropriate V.A. health care programs, and schedule medical appointments. DeMarino's long-term goal is to enable veterans to use university facilities and telecommunications technology to take care of all their medical needs, including examinations and consultations, without ever having to leave campus.

Another recently initiated program is Georgetown's new veterans' residence. Army veteran James Sutton found that living in a traditional dorm with 18-year-old college freshmen was not always appropriate for transitioning military, whose age and life experiences differed significantly from those of their roommates. Sutton proposed the creation of a Living and Learning Community (LLC) for veterans, similar to those that already exist for other special interest groups. His goal was to create a welcoming, on-campus living environment for veterans and also to sponsor activities that would create dialogue between veterans and others.

With the establishment of the Veterans Office, the GUSVA has been able to focus on activities other than lobbying and counseling. Four years ago Colby Howard organized a spectacular Veterans Day celebration that has since become a tradition at Georgetown. In fact, it has grown into a week-long commemoration that includes lectures, films, and receptions. Such activities raise the awareness of the entire campus of veterans' contributions. Last year's GUSVA president T.M. Gibbons-Neff and this year's president Zachary Zimmerman, both Marine veterans, have implemented outdoor education programs, film nights, service projects, and social events that not only create a sense of community among veterans, but provide vehicles for interaction with all students and faculty.

What we have done at Georgetown, you can do at your school. If you are a veteran and don't have representation at your institution, organize! Contact the national office of the Student Veterans of America and ask for guidance. You will not only be doing yourself and other veterans a favor, you will be making a contribution to your entire campus.