The Fordham University Veterans Initiative
Michael Gillan, Ph.D.,Associate Vice President for Westchester; Co-Chair, University Veterans Affairs, Fordham University

Fordham University’s military and veteran ties have always been strong, dating to the Civil War. Markers of that tradition are abundant: from the insigniae of the armed services on the majestic doors of the University Church, to the names of students and alumni lost in the wars of the past century inscribed on several memorials in places of honor, to Edwards Parade Ground – the green centerpiece of the Rose Hill Campus and the site of Commencement each year – named for Gen. Clarence Edwards, Professor of Military Science in the late 19th century. It has been a living tradition as well with, for example, an unbroken ROTC commitment of 80+ years – and currently the ROTC host campus for 33 colleges and universities throughout the NY Metropolitan Area.

Like many private universities, however, Fordham’s enrollment of student-veterans had gradually declined in the years following the Vietnam era, due to decreased numbers in uniform and, especially, to VA tuition benefits that had not kept pace with the increased costs of education, providing newly-discharged veterans with few realistic options to public institutions. In 2008, for example, no more than 30 veterans were among the 15,000+ men and women studying at Fordham.

But with the new Post-9/11 GI Bill promising to restore a full range of institutional choice for veterans, President Rev. Joseph McShane, S.J. asked two deans – one leading the Graduate School of Social Service, the other leading the School of Professional and Continuing Studies – to form a small committee “… to insure that Fordham would again take an exemplary leadership role in service to veterans.” Upon their recommendation, he also made one of the earliest major university commitments to the Yellow Ribbon Program of institutional financial assistance supplementing basic VA benefits.

Meeting notes from the FordhamVets Task Group (as it was called) from Spring 2009, in the months leading up to implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, indicate the emergence of three guiding principles for dealing with the anticipated increase of student-veterans on campus:

  • Rather than speculating on the variety of new challenges and issues that might present themselves, and trying quickly to ramp up in-house capabilities for responding, better to develop working relationships with the extensive veterans’ services community – from the Veterans Administration Medical Centers to State and local governmental agencies and non-profit providers – who have the expertise and experience to advise us and to accept referrals when necessary;
  • Be vigilant and responsive to what these new student-veterans might want and need, but don’t assume that their wants and needs will be substantially different from those of their “civilian” school-mates. Endeavor to offer appropriately-tailored opportunities and services, but never to the extent that they feel force-fed or segregated from the student body at large. Remember that, while they deserve to be recognized for their service, they should not be defined by it. They are, now, students first;
  • Be mindful that creating an Office of Veterans Affairs in anticipation of enrollment growth, or formulating plans to do so if and when growth materializes, risks sending the unintended message that “all things veteran” are the bailiwick and responsibility of that office and no other. The preferable goal might be to engage the wider University community in this re-energized mission, to promote the sense of ownership in all quarters, and, in effect, to encourage every University office to become a veterans office.

Those principles have helped to build and sustain the Initiative, now in its ninth semester, through enrollment growth more than ten-fold, with student-veterans working toward degrees in each of the ten Schools of the University and on all three campuses, and with over 100 already graduated.

Relationships with the veterans services community have become routine and mutually beneficial:

  • University-wide Veterans Orientation Programs are held each semester, a few weeks after the customary orientation activities of the individual Schools, to introduce them to the extensive support resources available both on- and off-campus (and, not insignificantly, to introduce them to one another and plant the seeds of peer support);
  • The NYC Director of the VA’s new VITAL Program spends one afternoon on campus each week, available to our counseling professionals and to student-veterans.

A self-directed student-veteran group has formed (Armed Forces at Fordham) and has achieved official University-wide club status; several new affiliate clubs have also formed in the professional schools; student-veterans are, of course, also welcome in the existing clubs and student activities, and some have shown a preference for them.

The opportunity and challenge of de-centralized responsibility has, characteristically, been welcomed in many quarters. Some examples include:

  • The Graduate School of Education’s Edge4Vets workshop series on military-college-career transition, engaging the assistance of veteran-alumni as mentors;
  • The College of Professional and Continuing Studies’ internship development course taught by a Marine Captain and founder of FourBlock, a non-profit for veterans career development;
  • The Counseling Center’s new Boots-to-Books peer mentoring program for new student-veterans;
  • Partnership with the Veterans Writing Project, offering creative writing workshops free to any veteran, and publishing anthologies of their work;
  • Fordham’s new Veteran & ROTC Alumni Chapter, established by the Office of Alumni Relations.

Perhaps most significantly, and most revelatory of institution-wide commitment, the ad hoc FordhamVets Task Group has now evolved into a standing University Committee on Veterans Affairs (UCVA), appointed by the Provost. Its work is in the hands of some 50 faculty, administrators, staff, student-veterans, and vet-alumni organized in five sub-committees: outreach, student support, enrollment/financial services, teaching and learning, internships and careers.

Hopefully, UCVA – and the broad ownership/shared responsibility principles that it represents – will not only further enhance Fordham’s efforts, but will also provide a model for other colleges and universities committed to the rewarding work of serving America’s returning veterans.

Photo courtesy of Fordham University: Michael Gillan (left) and Peter Vaughan, Co-founders of Fordham's Veterans Initiative, flanking Daniel Hodd, USMC veteran, and recipient of the inaugural FordhamVets Service Award, 16 May 2013.

Connections provides readers with news and information about the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Each month, Connections covers a topic affecting Jesuit higher education, along with news from AJCU, including federal relations and AJCU conferences.