Due in part to the Post-9/11 GI Bill—which offers expanded benefits to military students, including those interested in online learning—there are more current and former military members looking to get higher education degrees and prepare themselves for a job market that often doesn’t know how to take advantage of their unique skill sets.
This brings up the questions: What is a university’s role and responsibility in helping this community thrive? In what ways can universities help military students bring their unique worldview to the college community, and find ways to share their vast international and cultural experiences?
Northeastern University and the College of Professional Studies (CPS) have a strong commitment to educating military students who served in the Post-9/11 era and ensuring that the environment is welcoming and supportive. In 2009, the university pledged $2 million to the Yellow Ribbon Program. Under this program, Northeastern partners with the Department of Veterans Affairs to subsidize the portion of tuition and fees not paid for by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In most cases, this eliminates all costs for the students.
Northeastern counts about 400 veterans among its students, and the university has taken a leadership role in making its service members an integrated part of the school. Northeastern’s Student Veterans Organization (SVO) was started in 2009, when the university recognized the need to establish a veteran community. “There were plenty of veterans here, they just didn’t know each other or have a collective voice,” says Andrew McCarty, an Air Force veteran and Northeastern’s veteran services specialist.
In the beginning, it was slow to take off. But as the students saw value in using the group to get things done, address their unique needs and make things better for the future students, they began to make it their own. Now, the SVO has been recognized as the top chapter in the United States.
This group has a wide-reaching impact on campus that includes an educational outreach program in which student veterans go into classrooms and talk about their experiences in the military. The SVO also meets with business leaders around Boston to try and expand the list of employers who want to hire military students. In addition to the SVO, the university created a Veteran Success Committee that meets once a month and addresses the needs of student veterans and dedicated a space on campus for use as a veterans’ lounge.
One of the reasons that taking steps like these is important is that university life can be incredibly at odds with life in a war zone, making it even more difficult for those returning from service who are going to school. “We’re different, we just are,” says Lan Kim, who is studying graphic design at CPS and who spent his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’ve seen and done things that the majority of Americans will never likely do. That is a humbling experience. I constantly see life on a grander scale because of it.”
McCarty sees this viewpoint a lot. “Many veterans aren’t as interested in the party scene, the drinking, who’s dating who. Many of them are already married, some with kids and careers already.” It’s one of the reasons why some veterans reach out to the SVO. “They miss the camaraderie,” says McCarty. “They miss talking to people who speak their language.”
If higher education leaders are to take note of this community’s unique outlook, they should also keep in mind their self-possession. Says McCarty, “What I love about [military students] is that they don’t come in and ask, “What can you do for me?” They pull up a chair and say, “What can I do for myself?”