Throughout almost four years of involvement in the Student Government Association, I have met many interesting people, students, administrators, faculty, you name it.
Among those, I have had the pleasure of coming to know several unique members of our campus community: veterans.
The idea that some of our peers are older and much more versed in the harsh realities of the world was not new to me. My brother served and was part of the Iraq invasion before he returned to the world of higher education. Meeting and talking with veterans on a personal basis gives nebulous ratings and rankings more meaning.
The recent ranking of the University of Massachusetts among the top 15 percent of schools that are the most military friendly is an admirable achievement. Not only does it set UMass apart as we compete for recognition and accomplishment, it demonstrates the growing and continuing support of administration, staff and students for the veteran community and their education.
The study cites examples in full-time veteran counselors, a strong Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), career placement, veteran networking, child care and access to tuition and fee refunds for active service.
I think the ranking also comes at a time in which veterans are expanding involvement outside their own community. Veterans comprise roughly 2 percent of the campus population, yet you can see their mark everywhere.
There is now a living and learning community called “The Barracks,” which is dedicated to housing and serving veterans on campus. A movement to start a fraternity for veterans, Omega Delta Sigma, is beginning to gain steam.
In the SGA, veteran senators have risen to high leadership positions with one chairing a Senate committee and another serving as Veterans’ Affairs secretary in the executive cabinet; I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from them. Whether there is a correlation or not, the ranking and this expansion in involvement definitely complement each other.
As we enter the 150th year of UMass, a celebration of the land grant concept, I think it is important to acknowledge the large role veterans have played in defining us as a university. Just as the University renews its efforts on recruiting and serving veterans following the 2008 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, I find value in examining UMass’ role in the post World War II period of demobilization.
As thousands of veterans sought education, the then-Massachusetts State College actually ran out of room to house the G.I. Bill beneficiaries. In fact, a new college was established between 1946 and 1949 at Fort Devens, specifically to serve the overflowing numbers of former soldiers. The sheer number of enrolling students over that period brought in different perspectives from different backgrounds, with an overarching shared experience of conflict and war.
Fast forward 70 years or so, and UMass once again finds itself a destination for veterans looking for a quality education. Through programs like the Yellow Ribbon, which pays all resident tuition and fees for public school attendance and provisions like the Veteran Services office and VeteranONE, a veteran RSO, UMass builds upon its history of welcoming veterans and bringing them into the community.
Though this latest ranking only measures the benefits provided by the University to those who qualify, I like to think of it as a beacon, reminding us that we are a diverse campus in ways that people do not normally consider.
The SGA has given me a platform on which I have been able to interact with involved veterans, who wish to use their unique background and experience to contribute to the community and make changes that benefit everyone.
If nothing else, we should be reminded, not just of the sacrifice inherent in the title “veteran”, but of the true diversity of perspective and opinion on this campus and how it all contributes to a betterment of UMass and its students.
Garrett Gowen is the vice president of the SGA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.