Addressing an audience of about 300 student veterans, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki urged them to parlay their military experience into successful college careers. He was the keynote speaker at the Student Veterans of America (SVA) awards dinner Oct. 2 at the Georgetown Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
"I want to see you graduate. Unless you do, there is no payoff for you, for this program, for the nation," Shinseki said. "You have to graduate. So I'll be checking. I'll be tracking your graduation rates. Get organized, help each other, and graduate. It's important to all of us."
The dinner was part of the SVA's Third Annual National Conference and Exhibition, held Oct. 1-4. The theme of the four-day conference was "Success After Service" - a motto that SVA co-founder and former president Derek Blumke says should be at the forefront in everyone's mind.
"The future goals regarding veterans that need the most attention are getting society and colleges to understand the unique skill sets that veterans bring," Blumke said. "They can make an impact on society far greater than anyone can understand with their leadership skills, their past experiences of being in combat and the military. The camaraderie, the teamwork - these are things that society needs to be reminded of."
Blumke said that SVA's goal "is to ensure that every veteran that's getting out and thinking about college will be helped into that transition, and then helped to transition again once they get out of college - on to the next stage of their lives."
SVA was founded in 2008 after several veterans from different college campuses realized that they were all facing the same problems in their transition from the military to campus life, including difficulty adjusting to the more independent nature of academia and feeling misunderstood by peers and professors.
Two years later, the success of the organization speaks for itself. There are currently more than 300 SVA chapters on college campuses nationwide, with nearly 30 chapters started in the past two weeks alone. After years of many veterans experiencing isolation on college campuses, SVA co-founder Elizabeth O'Herrin is proud to report that the willingness of college administrators to recognize the unique needs of their student veterans has increased immensely.
"There's just so much more attention being given to returning veterans on college campuses than there were two or three years ago," O'Herrin said. "We came back to college campuses and felt invisible, like no one knew we were there, no one knew what we were going through."
SVA's Georgetown University chapter has 112 members out of a population of about 400 veterans on campus. Erik Brine, the chapter's co-founder and president, said the event's location,as well as the willingness of many faculty members to speak at the conference,was proof of how SVA is making a difference in the lives of student veterans.
Brine also stressed the importance of peer-to-peer support, saying that establishing a group to put student veterans in touch with one another has solved a host of previous problems.
"No problem that somebody's having is a new problem," Brine said. "Somebody's had it before, and we know how to fix it. We know the right person to talk to.
"Initially, the biggest problem was finding out who these people were. So what we've been able to do at GUSVA is fill that gap in support, tie the right people together to find out and highlight where the issues are, and get the right people involved at the right levels."
The American Legion was among the exhibitors at the conference. Bob Madden, assistant director for the Legion's Economic Division, attended the conference to learn more about how the Legion can partner with SVA to expand its outreach efforts to student veterans.
"SVA has reached a different demographic - students transitioning from the military to college," Madden said. "As an organization that has been around for 92 years, we offer valuable resources, such as claims (processing) and education, that other organizations may not offer. So it's a great way to partner with SVA."
When Blumke co-founded SVA two years ago, his mission was simple: helping veterans adjust to civilian life and the academic environment. A U.S. Air Force veteran who served six years (including three deployments to Afghanistan), Blumke is currently a senior at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, with a double major in psychology and political science.
Blumke said that his shift to student life proved to be daunting, and that he struggled with depression. He discovered that his struggles were shared by other student veterans, which led him to the concept of SVA.
"It was tough in that you didn't have that team any longer. Leaving that common purpose and mission to go to a college campus where it's pretty individualistic. Where everyone is out for themselves and not as much for the larger cause of helping one another through their mission - getting a degree," Blumke said. "But it also shows that this organization came about for a reason. People were getting out of the service, they didn't have a sense of mission or purpose, and this organization is giving them that."
In his speech at the dinner, Shinseki recalled the great success of the original GI Bill of 1944, which allowed about eight million veterans to attend college and vocational schools, enter the workforce, and raise the economy into a new era of prosperity. He told his listeners that, as demonstrated by the work of SVA, he has no doubt that the new generation of veterans can achieve similar success.
"History is poised to repeat itself through you," Shinseki said. "You can have an equally resounding impact on this country. That is the potential, and I ask you to be up to it. You have learned in the world's best military. Don't let it go to waste."