Last weekend, more than 1,100 student veterans and nearly 600 administrators, business leaders, nonprofit professionals, and advocates came together to celebrate student veterans and more importantly, channel their collective strengths toward future opportunities.
Perfect timing, many would say, given Student Veterans America’s recent decisions to appoint Jared Lyon as the chief executive officer and bring in James Schmeling as the executive vice president of strategic engagement. Once thought of as a mere collection of student organizations across a couple hundred campuses with no national vision or consistency, SVA is elevating its talent and setting course for bigger things to come.
Sure, SVA chapters are the lifeblood of the organization and keep pulse on what’s working and what’s not when it comes to student veterans in higher education. SVA’s mission after all is “To provide military veterans with the resources, support, and advocacy needed to succeed in higher education and following graduation.” But with the number of chapters now topping 1,300 and with 15 new chapters opening every month, SVA leaders recognize they have an important opportunity. SVA can not only shape individual student success, but also, given its access to an important source of information (400,000+ student veterans with all their success and challenges), SVA can shape policies and practices relating to veteran students in higher education.
In his opening remarks at the 2016 national conference, Lyon reminded attendees of his firm belief in “the transformative power of higher education.” At the individual level, SVA can improve the lives of veterans through campus support systems and local resources that facilitate students obtaining degrees leading to meaningful careers. By focusing on increased membership, connecting current students with alumni and cultivating strong private sector partners, Lyon aims to improve the results for every veteran seeking an education.
More broadly, however, SVA leaders recognize their role and opportunities go well beyond the individual student or even campus chapters. SVA’s chairman of the board, Rodrigo Garcia, clearly stated in his conference welcome letter, “Through advocacy, research, programs and our commitment to ensuring that standards of excellence in GI Bill education are met, SVA is enabling service providers, policy makers, institutions of higher education and government agencies to make data-driven decisions about supporting student veterans.”
By learning from the challenges and successes experienced by its members, SVA is sitting on valuable insights that can lead to improved higher education practices for veterans and perhaps validate VA expenditures under the highly coveted, yet costly, Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. In fact, SVA is already working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse to systematically fix the concerns highlighted in a recent Washington Post article that noted more than $400 million went uncollected from veteran students who dropped a class or left school altogether. Additionally, this partnership will release data that more clearly show the academic outcomes — such as persistence, retention, transfer, graduation rates — of student veterans using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Other opportunities may exist for SVA as it continues to mature. First, SVA could serve as an independent feedback mechanism for the VA’s recently expanded program, Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, which has placed hundreds of mental health practitioners on dozens of campuses around the nation. Started in 2011 at five locations, VITAL has grown to a robust network of support on campus, at medical centers, and at 16 veterans integrated service networks. Having a third-party evaluation inform VA leaders on the merits of the program could prove useful in ensuring its future funding and prioritization of services and locations.
Second, as the ratio of student veterans to “others” who attend SVA’s national conference shifts to include more and more businesses seeking veteran talent, could next year’s conference become less about student veteran success on campus and more about post-graduation employment? Admittedly, this is a challenging opportunity. Failure to keep current student-veteran success at the forefront of SVA’s efforts could diminish its ability to improve graduation rates and future employment. Yet the attendance by companies and nonprofit organizations is a strong signal of perceived value. How SVA leverages this shift in the coming years could shape the organization’s strategic goals and long-term vision for the organization and its annual gathering.
Lastly, when I attend conferences or meetings I always like to ask, “Who’s not in the room?” In this particular case, most of the student veterans and higher education staff attending already “get it.” The students are usually in a leadership role in their campus chapters and well on their way to achieving their goals. Administrators, likewise, attend because they already see the value in not only supporting veteran students but also supporting them well. In that light, how can SVA embrace and further support struggling student veterans absent from the national convention and campuses that have yet to recognize their need to support student veterans and families? Outreach and educational efforts to these two populations could be key to expanding SVA’s role and potential impacts.
Although only time will tell if SVA can stay the course and leverage its maturation properly; there are strong indications SVA is just beginning to hit stride. It will be exciting to watch as SVA moves forward in the coming years under new leaders who recognize these challenges and opportunities and further contribute to the success of “Yesterday’s Warriors, Today’s Scholars, Tomorrow’s Leaders.”