As Strong as Steel
Left, left, left, write, left.
By Kalee Black and Kaleigh Pryor
This might not be the traditional form of the cadence ingrained in the minds of many service men and women, but it is very similar to the goal of Student Veterans of America (SVA): a seamless and effective transition from familiarity of veterans to new and exciting achievements in civilian life.
Western students, staff and faculty are looking to establish a much-needed SVA center on campus to assist veteran students while they pursue their degrees. A group of Griffons are taking action to correct the lack of this type of programming at Western.
Tristen Thomas, a freshman public relations major and member of SVA, was active duty in the Army from 2015 through 2019 and has been in the Air National Guard since 2018. Thomas enlisted at the age of 17, because he couldn’t afford college and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
Since the government assists both active and inactive-duty military in paying for college, Thomas decided to enroll last year at Western in an attempt to earn his degree. Thomas has seen the difficulty of transitioning from military to student life first-hand during his short time as a student.
“It’s a big culture shock coming out of active duty and trying to go to school for the first time,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s a little too much. I think something like this could help people who might be struggling in school and propel them even higher to become a student leader.”
Another SVA member and student veteran in a similar situation is Jay Fude. Fude, a junior technology communications major, was active duty in the Air Force during the early part of the 1990s.
Fude enlisted in the military because he didn’t feel like he had another option at the time. Both of his parents dropped out of school around eighth grade, and he was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. Fude left for basic training only seven days after graduating.
“There are probably veterans in a similar situation to me,” Fude said. “They are first-generation college students, so they don’t know what they’re getting into. In the military, uncertainty was something we lived with, but now, being in control of your own destiny can be frightening.”
Fude sees SVA as an opportunity to mend a bridge of understanding between Western staff members and military students. He said that the success of these students can help the masses if this program is utilized to its full potential, and the first step toward accomplishing this is getting faculty involved.
“Faculty most likely have tools and resources that I don’t have,” Fude said. “As much as we [student veterans] have each others’ backs, we don’t have all the answers. And faculty might not have all the answers, but they might know somebody who does.”
Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an assistant professor in the department of communication and journalism, and John Hewitt, an academic advisor in the Western Institute, are the advisors of the group. Hewitt was eager to get involved with the organization because of his position as a military advisor for Western.
For work, he often visits other institutions and was shocked by our university’s lack of a veteran’s program when compared to surrounding universities. This motivated Hewitt to help our campus’ SVA efforts in any way possible.
“The more I get involved in it, the more I appreciate what the men and women who served our country have done for us,” Hewitt said.
Although this is Hewitt’s first experience working this closely with SVA, this isn’t Jackson’s first interaction with student veterans.
She was inspired to get involved with SVA at different institution through another faculty member who was a veteran. At this previous university, Jackson received Green Zone Training, which assists in identifying students and faculty as military-friendly to veterans. Green Zone Training is designed to cultivate a supportive college community for service men and women by educating campus civilians.
As a non-veteran, herself, Jackson said that this training was extremely important in improving her understanding of military students. She has had veteran of all ages in her classroom and said that the experiences they have given her are things she wouldn’t trade for the world.
“They would put their trust and faith in me to help them get to where they wanted to go,” Jackson said. “But they also put faith in all of us involved with their education to help them get any assistance they might need without as much push back, because they had been told they can trust us. It’s a different sense of accomplishment on the faculty side to see those students make it through.”
The main goal of SVA is to assist veterans in becoming college graduates, not just students. To accomplish this, they must be provided with the resources to do so. When Fude was asked how a group like this could assist students with a military background, he was quick to answer.
“Comradery,” Fude said. “The sense of going through something tough — and even though it’s difficult — it’s not as difficult if you have a support system. If you have a group of people who you can help when they get down, and they can help you when you get down — it makes all the difference in the world.”
A program of this nature could mean mentoring, counseling and socializing among student veterans, as well as the rest of the campus community. The opportunity to work together and collaborate with students from different background, especially military, could excel learning and the success of all. But the support must come first.
“Our veterans at Western can be like steel; they can be the strongest but also the most brittle,” Fude said. “If we can back up that strength with the ability to be flexible and bend and move and learn, I think we would end with a group of very powerful, motivated veteran leaders. There’s no reason we can’t cultivate that culture on this campus.”