‘Patriotism should be a low order of priority for a university president.”
As president of Winthrop University, I received that advice from a student back in September, in response to my campus announcement of our plans to acknowledge the 9/11 anniversary. It prompted me to write a blog post vowing to double down on our efforts to support student veterans and make our campus even more veteran friendly. And that’s what we’ve done.
During the open house for our new student veterans center on Veterans Day, I had the distinct pleasure to welcome, along with my husband, retired U.S. Navy Cap. Larry Williamson, numerous Winthrop students who have served in the armed forces.
A symbolic gesture, to be sure, but one that was fitting: As a community, we needed to show support for our student veterans and to acknowledge the challenges they often face in returning to school after their service.
The next day, I attended an event sponsored by Winthrop’s student vets and I learned of a non-profit organization based in Columbia called the Hidden Wounds Foundation. It serves as a safety net for returning veterans who need services from the Veterans Administration but are waiting to receive them.
Hidden Wounds recognizes the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among vets and provides help to those who are struggling. (Did you know once every hour a vet takes his or her own life?) The organization’s work providing post-service treatment and help with adjustment to civilian life is clearly saving lives and deserves more attention.
Our student vets presented a generous donation to Hidden Wounds and read the names of the N.C. and S.C. casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, now called Operation New Dawn. It was truly poignant. The names were read as willow oak leaves swirled about, falling from a nearby tree. How difficult it must have been for those veterans to offer that roll call to all of us in attendance.
What struck me the most over the course of these activities is that the educational community has a true obligation to serve these students well. And we start by listening to them, really listening to them. Then by asking them what we need to do better, how we can help them and what they need to succeed.
That’s what we did at Winthrop, and that’s why we now have a student veterans organization, the veterans center and a core group of student veterans who have begun to feel not like outsiders in the student ranks but fully engaged and appreciated for the perspective and life experience with which they enrich our campus community.
With another Veterans Day now behind us, it would be tempting to set these initiatives aside until next year. But there are more than 2 million service members and their families who are eligible for benefits under the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. All of them deserve the opportunity to fully benefit from a college education and career preparation. When they succeed, we all benefit from a better educated workforce and a more globally competitive economy.
At Winthrop, we are proud of what we’ve done, but we can and should continue to advance our student veteran services. As part of our campus visioning process, we are re-evaluating credit for military education and experience and have plans to better track student veterans’ admission, retention, academic performance and graduation rates.
We know what we measure we can improve, and in so doing, we can make an even greater impact on the student veterans we serve. Serving their individual needs and the greater workforce-development needs of our state will continue to be a priority for us.
Our commitment goes beyond being patriotic. It’s about doing what is right — for all of us.
Dr. Comstock is president of Winthrop University; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read her blog at blogs.winthrop.