How did you end up at Saint Michael's?
My wife, Rachel, was offered a pediatrics medical residency at the University of Vermont a couple years ago so I came up here with her from Arkansas where we're both from. After checking out all the Burlington-area colleges I decided St. Mike's was a place I could make good use of my veterans benefits through the federal Yellow Ribbon program in a supportive and peaceful environment that felt welcoming and military-friendly. The business program, which is what I wanted to study, is strong, and I enjoy the smaller size and the campus at St. Mike's.
How did your military background prepare you for college?
I didn't have any specific plans when I moved up here and never had been to Vermont, but I had confidence in my ability to improvise and succeed in just about any situation based on my years as a Navy corpsman helping some people around the world. Along with treating service men and women who need medical care, I've been to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor and Federation States of Micronesia on humanitarian missions to care for victims of disasters or disease. Since I'm closer to age 30, I'm a few years older than a lot of the veteran-students I know, but most of us are a bit older than traditional college age, so we bring some useful life experience with us.
What support system for veterans was in place at Saint Michael's when you arrived?
At first I wasn't sure how much of a presence or awareness of veterans to expect at Saint Michael's, so it was great to meet the Wilderness Program Leader, Todd Wright, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm. I learned that for years, he's made it his business to connect with and help the small group of veterans or students from military families at Saint Mike's. I made friends with a few of them during my first year and became good friends with Alex Black, who is an Army medic. We connected right away over a lot of common experiences, and he and I helped organize a campus chapter of the national Student Veterans Association to support veterans already on campus, while also looking for ways to attract more here.
How's that going?
I think it's going really well. Just this spring, thanks to Pat Gallivan and the Institutional Advancement Office staff, working with me and Todd and some of the other veteran students, Saint Michael's was able to raise enough funds to create a full-time position on the Student Life staff, dedicated to supporting and recruiting veterans beginning Fall Semester 2014. Some of our earliest support and initiative for the work we're doing came from the administration, along with psychology instructor and counselor Dave Landers.
Now that there's a campus veterans group, what are some of its activities?
Our SVA chapter meets every month or so -- mostly just to chat, have a beer and give each other support and also enjoy some camaraderie -- but we also plan activities. For example, we sent 150 holiday care-packages to forward-operating bases in Afghanistan last year, and launched a pilot program with digital-camo-style team jersey sales at Military Appreciation days for sporting events to fund-raise for SVA. We do integrate our lives with each other, and if we're having a bad day, we'll call each other. Once a month we'll try to do a vets-only event. We want students and vets to integrate, but we also need a break a little bit with just us. It builds our structure and stronger trust, so if I call somebody up, they know who I am -- I'm not a stranger.
What's been your experience with St. Mike's faculty and staff?
Support here from faculty and staff for veterans and the work we're doing has been, I might say, almost a nice surprise for me, because at every institution in the past, I've been just a student, but when I see faculty here, there is a level of respect – they don't see me as just a student. Instead they have the trust and confidence to call on me or the other veterans in class or when they need things done, because they know they can count on us as having maybe a little more maturity and life experience.
Do you have any specific examples?
I feel like I got pretty lucky with my academic adviser, Karen Popovich. She's a business professor who's from a military family and she had previous experience in a collegiate Veterans Benefits office. She's let me and her colleagues know that she appreciates my experiences and those of other veterans, because in her mind, as she puts it, we bring a lot to the examples that professors are trying to set in the classroom. She and I enjoy talking and we've had some good conversations.
What's an example of special challenges veterans might face in class?
One challenge for veterans could be adjusting again to the "free thinking" they might encounter in classes because someone eventually is bound to say something inconsistent with a view that has gone unchallenged for years in a military environment -- so I'm finding that veterans have to be careful not to be overly-defensive as a reflex reaction in those kinds of discussions when topics of war and peace or the military or PTSD might come up in a class. We have a chance to add an important voice to those discussions.
I liked some philosophy classes I had, which I hadn't even expected, so I'm doing a minor in that as well. I could have graduated this May if I'd done summer and pushed, but my wife had one more year so I figured I might as well develop further. I'm also thinking about minoring in global studies. So it's been busy since I also work doing security and construction jobs, but compared to a hospital ship, 13- to 16-hour days is nothing.
Have you done any extra-curricular student activities?
Some veteran buddies and I who have been athletes all our lives – I was a hockey player when I was younger -- wanted to try club rugby, and we really enjoyed it for a few practices but we soon discovered that our ages exceeded the official limits to play in this particular club-league. However, meanwhile, while working out at the campus gym, some of us met and connected with a great guy here named Zaf Bludevich -- he's the college's longtime athletic trainer, associate athletic director and also a graduate of the nearby military college, Norwich. Zaf arranged so that as former medics, Alex and I could be informal sideline trainers for St. Mike's varsity athletic teams, as an alternative to playing club sports -- and that way, we developed more connections to the student body, sort of like big brothers, and could hang out with the team but not be coaches. It's a good medium for us. Some if the athletes we met even joined the new SVA chapter to show solidarity with us. To show our thanks to Zaf for all his support, we presented him a military-style "command/challenge coin," which any veteran will know is a very meaningful honor in military culture.
When did you first decide to serve in the military?
Like a lot of other men and women, my inspiration came on September 11, 2001 when I was still a high school student in Arkansas. I felt that for me, my love for my country demanded that I do something more substantial than just talking about it -- so I looked into it and ended up enlisting in the Navy Corpsman program.
How does that experience connect to your work today for Saint Michael's veterans?
I still believe in taking meaningful actions to honor my commitments, whether it's to my family, my country or now to my college community. So today one of my commitments is assuring that today's veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond feel just as welcome and at-home in their college experience as earlier generations have at Saint Michael's -- because this is an institution with a long and proud history with veterans and the military.
What have you learned about that history that might interest other veterans considering Saint Michael's?
According to Todd Wright and Pat Gallivan and other people I've talked to, this college had a really prominent Air Force ROTC program for many decades that launched military careers for all sorts of graduates, and there are still opportunities for students to do ROTC at neighboring campuses. Another thing is that there's a military base, Camp Johnson, located right between the Saint Michael's main and north campuses, and you'll often see many Guard members on campus as they use the college facilities.
I also thought it was very cool to learn that Saint Michael's alumni include General Joseph Dunford '77, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. Another alumnus was a Medal of Honor winner from Vietnam, the late Marine Col. Donald Cook '56; and even a senior priest from the college's founding religious order, the Society of Saint Edmund, Fr. Ray Doherty '51, is a former Marine. Another thing is that, for nearly a decade, an active Military Heritage program has supported scholarships for veterans or those from military families, along with other initiatives, such as dedicating a statue honoring Col. Cook.
Why is it important for a college community to care whether veterans are welcomed on campus?
They served our country, and everyone should have equal opportunity to higher education. I'd emphasize that any veterans with special needs will find Saint Michael's is very attune to accessibility and offering necessary accommodations -- and we have a VA Center a mile down the road in South Burlington, so that's a chance for some integration too.
What else about Saint Michael's College would appeal to a military veteran?
We're a tight-knit community at Saint Michael's. This is like the camaraderie that I missed from the service. In the military you were assigned to live next to a complete stranger and you got to know them, and Saint Michael's is somewhat like that – you have a small community where half the school knows you, and I found it a good transition from military to civilian life. As we step up efforts to recruit more veterans, we understand that Saint Michael's is not the right place for everyone, but we need to find the vets it is right for.