Funds raised for new veterans advocate position

By: Mark Tarnacki

Saint Michael's College is entering the next chapter in its long history of welcoming military men and women home to its campus: A successful recent campaign has raised more than $200,000 in commitments to fund a new Coordinator of Veterans Services position in the college's student affairs and admissions offices focused on the recruitment and retention of veterans and active duty military personnel.

This new push, spearheaded by the Institutional Advancement Office with college-wide cooperation from many offices, is being called the "30 x 15 Initiative," so named because of the College's goal of having 30 veterans enrolled by 2015 with the ability to sustain that number going forward.

Todd Johnstone-Wright, the Wilderness Program's longtime director and an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, for years has been acting as informal liaison to the handful of student veterans presently on campus, but between his Wilderness activities and new duties as associate dean of students, he just hasn't felt able to do the job the way he feels it should be done for veterans.

He thinks the 30 x 15 goals are realistic since so many service men and women are transitioning out of the military after completing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with educational benefits and the desire to continue their education. In addition Saint Michael's College participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program which combined with veterans educational benefits insures tuition and standard fees are covered in full. In many ways this is similar to the Mongomery-GI Bill that was so important to the college's growth after World War II.

"Now we're hovering from 20 to 27 students using military benefits, not all prior service, but some using parents benefits," Wright said, "so we figured, if we're already attracting 15 a year by accident, we can double that if we're deliberate about it."

"It's worth doing because I think it shows a commitment to veterans, and I've long said that what makes Saint Michael's great for traditional students is what makes it great for veterans – very few people fall through the cracks here and that's the kind of support vets need as they transition from being warriors back into the civilian world," he said.

The college benefits in a host of ways from recruiting more veterans, said Kathie Berard, individual giving officer, who, with support from Terri Selby, former director of individual giving, has been working on the fund-raising side of the initiative, including over $200,000 in commitments from a select number of alumni supporters as of April 30.

"Those supporting this effort know that veterans have an irrepressible work ethic to seize and succeed at multiple challenges," Berard said. "They raise the bar as proven leaders and role models for younger students in academic settings and campus programs such as Wilderness and MOVE, and as personal mentors." A bonus is that their presence could even be a boost to the college financially with so many veterans qualifying for Yellow Ribbon and other tuition benefits earned by their service, she said.

Selby said veterans also "offer a vital perspective for classroom and campus discussion of global relations, current and historic events, peace and justice and other areas, with their real-life experience in combat, conflict mediation and community-building; also, they are critical thinkers who bring practical, rigorous analysis and decision-making to their leadership roles."

Wright says his goal is "to have someone in the new position by mid-August so when the fall semester starts, they're already here." He and colleagues already have a fairly specific vision of the sort of person who would be ideal for the job: "I'd like to see a person here who wakes up and thinks 'how do I get veterans here, and once they're here, how do I make sure they stay?'" He says  it will be somebody with combat experiences, preferably in the combat arms, infantry or medic with leadership experience "in order to relate best to the population we're recruiting – but they also need to be able to support them programmatically and academically" with strong resumes in those areas.

"The focus of the funding would be to hire a recruitment or retention professional, and it's a three-year trial," Wright continued. "The funds we've raised can pay a salary for that period -- to really get our hands around the issues." The new staff person will build connections locally with the Vermont Army National Guard, the Army Mountain Warfare School and Vermont Air National Guard, and more broadly, with the Veteran's Administration, government agencies and nonprofits that support veterans. Residential Life support for veterans also will expand, perhaps including special housing, college leaders say. The staff person will work with faculty and staff to support individual needs, coordinate workshops for greater veteran-friendly awareness, and more. 

Wright says the first job for whoever fills the position will be sorting through a lot of unknown variables. "There's not a recruiting season like in regular admissions since soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors are getting out of the military on a revolving basis," he explained, "so it will be a learning curve on how we do recruiting; also, where do we send people, how do we spend our recruiting dollars, how do we advertise?  I think the first year of the job is going to be a lot of research, figuring out what is our process, and once we figure it out, implementing it. So the sooner we get somebody here, the better."

Saint Michael's has a distinguished history of helping veterans. At the close of World War II it created "Miketown" out of government buildings from Forth Ethan Allen to accommodate GI Bill veterans. In 1951 the Air Force ROTC program launched, with the first graduates commissioned in 1954. It phased out in 1995 after more than 450 students earned commissions. Today students can enroll in Army ROTC at the University of Vermont or Air Force ROTC at Norwich University supported by Saint Michael's scholarships. And in 2003, an alumni committee led the Military Heritage Project campaign to build a lasting tribute to the college's service men and women, leading to the Military Memorial dedicated in 2007, which recognizes Col. Donald Cook '56, a Medal of Honor winner posthumously for heroic service as a POW in Vietnam, along with other alumni who gave their lives for our country. These donors also created an endowed scholarship, awarded annually to a student enrolled in ROTC or whose parent served in the military.

Wright sees nothing but good for veterans and Saint Michael's coming from the 30 x 15 Initiative. "Veterans tend to be really low-maintenance students," he said. "They're adults, they take care of themselves very well, they're timely -- they've been to the rodeo, they're older. We've seen they raise the bar, particularly among the young men. So it's an all-around win-win, for the veterans and the institution."

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