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Veterans are part of Cornell's diversity

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, an influx of World War II veterans transformed the campus, bringing their experience and adult insights to classes, sports and activities. It’s happening again, as men and women who served during Middle East and other recent conflicts arrive to join the veterans already here. The university now counts more than 400 veterans among students, faculty and staff. That may be an underestimate, since many do not self-identify.

At last count, 117 students were receiving tuition assistance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which supports veterans with active service after Sept. 10, 2001. The tuition payment is capped nationally at an amount that does not cover Cornell’s full tuition, but the university is enrolled in the voluntary Yellow Ribbon Program, in which the university provides additional support that is matched by the Veterans Administration. Dependents of eligible veterans also receive support under Yellow Ribbon.

Veterans form a unique community that contributes to the diversity of the campus, and the university offers services to aid them and their dependents in the transition to their new roles. “They have a shared life experience, and they share a community,” said Vice Provost Judith Appleton. “Outreach to that community is part of the land-grant mission.”

Many of the veteran students are former officers who had earned undergraduate degrees before entering military service and are now enrolled as graduate or professional students. Enlisted personnel returning from active duty to enroll as undergrads may have different adjustment challenges. They have been living through American history, but they’ve had a few years to forget algebra, chemistry and English lit, along with regular study skills. But, “Cornell has such an elite admissions standard that academics per se are not usually the main issue for our veteran students,” said A.T. Miller, associate vice provost for academic diversity.

All veterans are “nontraditional” students, a category that includes students with families and those who are older than the usual high school graduate. Nontraditional students are supported by a university program called Trailblazers, which holds networking events for several subgroups, including a group for veterans/military. “They have a dramatically different experience,” Miller said. “What they need is each other, and that is what we provide.”

A group of undergraduate veterans plan to form their own student club, and will present the idea for discussion at the next Trailblazers meeting, set for Veterans Day. It’s a good idea, said Sarah Anderson, coordinator of community development and social justice programming in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, who works with Trailblazers. “When they have a place to meet, a staff and an office, we’re going to see a lot of their needs being met.”

Cornell is networking with other Ivy League and SUNY schools to arrange joint conferences where veteran/military students can meet and learn what’s working at other institutions. The first conference is tentatively planned in April at Brown.

Many schools are working to dispel the perception that a liberal arts education is not relevant or desirable for men and women with a history of military service, which may discourage some from applying. Cornell recruiters attend veterans’ events and place ads in veteran-oriented publications, and the university may soon participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project, which invites veterans to a campus for a two-week crash course to prepare them for academic life and the social challenges they may encounter. Warrior Scholar workshops were held last summer at Harvard, Yale and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “I'm hoping we’ll be one of five additional schools next year,” Appleton said.

Up to now, the Cornell admissions application has not included a question about veteran status, but that will be added next year, Miller said. That will help the university offer support, and life experience is always considered by admissions officers along with grades and SAT scores.

The university helps support staff and faculty veterans through the Cornell Veteran’s Colleague Network Group, sponsored by the Office of Inclusion and Workforce Diversity. The group meets monthly in Barton Hall and has led the way on several campus initiatives benefiting veterans. They arranged for a counselor from the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs to hold office hours on campus two days a week to advise veterans on benefits available to them, and launched an Ithaca chapter of Team Red, White and Blue, which connects veterans with each other and with members of the community through activities such as running groups, hiking, yoga classes, functional fitness and volunteering.

The work of the colleague group is credited with winning Cornell the 2013 Work Life Legacy Military Award from the Families and Work Institute, declaring the university a veteran-friendly place to work.

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Joe Schwartz