I remember arriving on the campus of the University of Delaware as an eighteen-year-old freshman, and moving in to Cannon Hall. I felt a bit like an imposter. It’s enough to say that I hadn’t exactly devoted my full attention to ‘academic excellence’ as a high school student. For that reason, it was only because an admissions counselor at UD was willing to ‘take a chance’ on me that I was admitted. That opportunity – really a second chance – was one that I was determined not to squander, and because of what I perceived as a debt I owed to that admissions counselor, I dedicated myself to proving her ‘right.’ However, what started out as a mission to repay a debt and prove others wrong, evolved to become a true passion for learning and education that today defines my life and professional vocation. All this because one person in the UD admissions office decided to take a chance on me.
I often reflect on my own college experience and the idea of repaying a debt, in the context of the work I do today on behalf of veterans. I say that because the prevailing rhetoric related to veterans and traditional higher-education still today remains one grounded in the notion of obligation – a responsibility to ‘repay a debt’ to those who have served.
On one hand, this is not a misplaced notion. It is true that our veterans, service members and military families have shouldered a unique burden to keep our nation secure. For that reason, it is also true that our society, including institutions of higher education, owes them a debt of gratitude.
At the same time, I would also argue that this narrative is inherently insulting to veterans – particularly as it relates to higher-education. The lens of obligation serves to entrench a (wrong) perception among college recruiters, admission officials, and faculty that veterans can’t succeed at top schools on their own merits, but out of obligation we should “let a few in to our ivory tower.”
Moreover, viewing veterans through the lens of obligation is contributing to a missed opportunity of historic proportions for America’s colleges and universities. What is the missed opportunity? It is the opportunity to make our best institutions richer, more dynamic, more diverse, and ultimately better by purposefully integrating and empowering veterans across our campus communities. This truth is what motivates the work I do today at Syracuse University. That is, our focus is to leverage all that our veterans bring to an academic environment, to make our University more diverse, more entrepreneurial, more inclusive, and service-orientated institution.
To illustrate this point, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a student veteran on our campus recently. When a glitch in our system housed the 26-year-old student in one of our freshman residence halls with 18-year-old students, I met with him to let him know we would correct the mistake and get him in housing more appropriate for his learning and living needs.
To my surprise he requested to stay in the freshman residence hall. When I inquired as to why he said, “The army taught me how to lead 18-year-olds, and I figure that’s what I’m going to do.”
This is what I mean when I say veterans represent a valuable asset to our campus community. This story, and many more like it, serve as the motivation for Syracuse University’s longstanding commitment to welcoming and supporting veterans and their family members as important members of our campus.
I am convinced that history will judge this generation’s great universities – and great university leaders – to be those that flip the script from obligation to opportunity. For that reason, in my role as Vice Chancellor at Syracuse University I’ve committed to advancing a whole-of-the-University approach to – as President Obama said when he signed the post-9/11 GI Bill into law – empowering our veterans to “lead our nation in the peaceful pursuit of economic leadership in the 21st century.”
In practice this means developing new support services for military-connected students such as the Office of Veterans and Military Affairs (OVMA), and our the Office of Veteran Student Success. As a testament to the efficacy of these efforts, in 2019 Military Times ranked Syracuse University as the number 1 private university for veterans.
The same motivations spurred me to launch the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University in 2011. The IVMF is the nation’s first interdisciplinary institute created to inform and advance the policy, economic, and wellness concerns of the America’s veterans and families. Today IVMF programs serve over 25,000 veterans annually across the nation, and the Institute is widely acknowledged as the nation’s leading academic voice related to issues impacting veterans and military-connected families.
We are excited that in April of 2020, Syracuse University will open the doors to the National Veterans Resource Center (NVRC), a state-of-the-art facility devoted to cultivating and leading innovative academic, government, and community collaborations positioned to empower those who have served in defense of the nation. Whether on Syracuse University’s campus, a military installation in Hawaii, or a community in North Carolina, the NVRC is emblematic of Syracuse University’s commitment to enacting the vast potential that veterans and their families represent to our communities and our campuses alike.
Now today, more than 3 million veterans of the post-9/11 generation are coming home from the longest sustained period of military conflict in this country’s history. I am a proud member of that post-9/11 generation of military veterans, and it was my time at the University of Delaware that set me on a path to both military service and a post-service career in higher education. For that reason, “coming home” to UD, to engage with students and faculty, related to how and why our nation’s colleges and universities can become more dynamic and academically richer for their efforts to engage veterans, is truly a special opportunity.