Supporting Veterans on Campus
Syracuse University is as involved as any American university in the debates over the meaning and purpose of diversity on campus, but it is miles ahead in one often-overlooked category—that of veterans and military families. There’s history here that gives them a head start: Syracuse is home to one of the nation’s oldest ROTC chapters, established as the Students Army Training Corps (SATC) during World War I. While World War II was under way, the then-university chancellor, William Tolley (an SATC graduate), was a key adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt in helping design the G.I. Bill that made it possible for millions of American veterans to earn college degrees. As I learned on a trip to Syracuse to better understand how the university supports veterans locally and across the country, Tolley established a commitment that continues today under current post-Afghanistan/Iraq G.I. benefits: The university will admit any veteran with a high school GPA of 3.0 to its undergraduate programs. This was a radical step in 1945, when elite educational institutions like Syracuse did not regularly admit veterans into their student bodies, and the school’s level of commitment remains a differentiator in higher education today.
This open relationship between veterans and the university was strained severely during the Vietnam War era. Protests at Syracuse left “a lot of bitterness and anger,” according to Eileen Schell, a professor of writing and rhetoric and co-leader of the Syracuse Veterans Writing Group. “The university’s narrative about working with veterans is, I think, pretty strong and helpful. But [the Vietnam] period was not.” Ron Novack, Army veteran and executive director of the university’s Office of Veteran and Military Affairs (OVMA), agreed: “Vietnam turned off [the veteran welcome].”
In 2014, Kent Syverud took over as chancellor and identified veteran outreach and inclusion as one of four priorities for his tenure. Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Syracuse opened the National Veterans Resource Center (NVRC). (Full disclosure: The prominent new building in which the NVRC is housed is named for Daniel and Gayle D’Aniello; Mr. D’Aniello, a Syracuse alumnus, chairs the board of the think tank where I work.) The aim of the NVRC is to cultivate innovation, public-private veteran success partnerships, and community collaborations that advance the lives of veterans and their families, both in Syracuse community and around the United States.
In his previous jobs at Vanderbilt University and Washington University, Syverud had been impressed with the kind of diversity that veterans bring to classrooms and campus life. Many veterans come from middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds, a major contrast with the overwhelmingly upper- and upper-middle backgrounds of students at elite educational institutions. Over 60 percent of veteran students are part of the first generation of their families to attend college, and 40 percent are racial and ethnic minorities. They also bring to the classroom setting a wisdom of age and work experience that many college students lack.
Veterans improve more than demographic balances at Syracuse. The relative generosity of veterans’ educational benefits helps the university balance its “discount rate,” which is achieved through institutional supports like grants and scholarships. Incorporating large numbers of veterans at the university requires significant work to build greater openness to their training and education. Syverud worked closely with Mike Haynie—founder and director of the university’s decade-old Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), a multidisciplinary research institute—to reshape the system for recruiting and supporting veterans on campus and to reform how Syracuse’s academic departments translate prior military education and training into academic credit.
Veteran diversity also affects attitudes and behaviors on campus. Those who serve in our armed forces undergo a profound transformation that shapes values, perspectives, and aspirations. An ethos of service, the fact that veterans are significantly older than other students, and a proclivity to, in Syverud’s words, “treat education like a job” all subtly influence the campus atmosphere for the better. Instead of transitioning from high school to college, vets often come from high-pressure, high-stakes assignments involving often life-and-death responsibility for themselves and others. The immersive quality of military life leaves important marks. Keith Doss, assistant director of OVMA’s Office of Veteran Success, told me about one of his students, “Marine[s] . . . they take care of people . . . they don’t worry about themselves.”
That relative absence of self-absorption among veteran students emphasizes why the work of the IVMF and OVMA are critical to ensuring that veterans are able to succeed, not just at Syracuse but also in civilian life in general. As generous as G.I. Bill educational benefits are, the transitions and planning supports veterans receive as they move from military to civilian life are relatively parsimonious, often amounting to a few days of classroom briefings. One day, a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine is living a highly structured, mission-driven life under a strict chain of command; the next, all the guardrails, constraints, and externally provided purpose are gone. Our veterans move from a no-choice military environment to a nothing-but-choice civilian society overnight.
“I’ve had veterans tell me,” Syverud said, “that patrolling Fallujah was less stressful than walking onto campus.” Other students echoed just how difficult it can be to fit in on campus. One, who is attending law school at Syracuse, was told in his exit training that he needed to hide his military experience and suppress the ordinary forms of military life, like short hair and addressing superiors as “sir,” in order to fit in to life on campus. The transition instructor, he said, “left me [with] this impression that I needed to change who I was so I could blend into society. These things that were normal in military life aren’t normal in the private world.” This lasted for about a month at which point he decided, “I’m sick of trying to be something I’m not. Hey, you know what? I’m done. . . . I liked who I was as a person, so I’m going to go back to that.” One student described the extreme awkwardness of attending a freshman orientation session in which the tour facilitator passed over him while asking each of the other newcomers about academic and professional interests. “It was like I wasn’t there. I was mortified,” he said.
Some of the transition stories are heartbreaking and harrowing. Two vets I spoke with told me of lapsing into depression or panic attacks following separation from military service. One had worked for eight years as a rescue swimmer for the Navy under the stress of deployments to the Middle East and elsewhere. Rescue swimmers are drilled continuously to make emergency protocols second-nature as they team with pilots and other crew members on dangerous, high-pressure assignments. In the weeks after leaving the Navy, he found himself in his car on a stretch of Ohio highway incapacitated by the prospect of finding his post-service path. Another, who had served as a linguist and intelligence officer, was “flat on my back” for a month after retiring, suffering a depression driven by a loss of the personal identity military service had provided.
Schell offered insight into some of the needs and capacities veterans bring to campus. A native of the Syracuse area whose family has a long history of military service, Schell believes stereotyping of vets on campus is a significant problem. “It’s a literacy issue,” she said. “People don’t know how diverse the military is and how multilayered it is. They see American Sniper . . . and it’s all white men who look like actor Bradley Cooper.” Part of the issue, she says, is that veterans themselves are working so hard to fit in. “We came up with the term . . . ‘stealth veteran.’ You get in a classroom with 18- or 19-year-olds, and you just make sure you sort of blend in.” Ironically, many vets adopt this posture because they are suffering from imposter syndrome—a false belief they aren’t smart enough or skilled enough to compete with the other undergrads. The reality, Schell says, is they feel out of sync not because they are behind but because they are “so far ahead” of other undergrads.
It turns out that veterans are like a lot of other students coming from diverse backgrounds. They face the prospect of constant “code switching” between a deeply ingrained military ethos that prizes the team to a highly individualistic and competitive campus culture. The Veterans Resource Center, much like the nearly 40 other ethnic and cultural groups on the Syracuse campus, performs the vital function of social and cultural respite. “Once I found [the resource center],” one vet told me, “it was a nice place for me . . . only veterans and family members were there. And it was a place where people talked like people in the military.”
These focused and intentional efforts at recruiting, welcoming, and supporting veterans are starting to pay off. There are now nearly 1,600 veterans or veteran family members on the Syracuse University campus spread across undergraduate and graduate programs, a fivefold increase over the past five years. The university operates a nonpartisan center to help equip veterans who are considering public service at the federal, state, and local level. The presence and prominence of IVMF on campus and its programs to serve veterans in the Syracuse community, like Schell’s writing group, have even brought a measure of healing even for those of the Vietnam generation who no longer think of the campus as “enemy” territory.
This type of social reconciliation and integration is rare. The transition a half-century ago to an all-volunteer force has always meant that the experience of military service would become much less pervasive than it was under the draft and would inevitably create greater distance between military and civilian life. Today, a tiny and shrinking percentage of Americans have any military experience at all, depriving the nation of a critical common touchstone of service and civic engagement. With willing partners like Syracuse University and its IVMF and OVMA, higher education is well positioned to bring military experience to life in places where it has been largely missing for decades.