Wesley Wilson, president of the Fordham Veterans Association (FVA), recalled something a colleague of his once said: “You’re trained for six months on how to be a soldier and you have one week to learn how to be a civilian again.”

On August 18, Wilson and the FVA attempted to make that transition just a little bit smoother. The student-led group held its most comprehensive veterans orientation to date, bringing together professionals from the Office of Military and Veteran Services; Career Services; VITAL; Fordham Libraries; Public Safety; and American Corporate Partners, a veterans’ mentorship organization, to provide resources and guidance to incoming student veterans.

Beginning early in the morning, departments from around the University made presentations and then fielded questions on everything from course requirements to the best places to eat. The new students then toured the Lincoln Center campus, boarded Ram Vans to tour Rose Hill, and took in a few more presentations. They capped the day by ringing the historic Victory Bell, an annual tradition signifying the start of vets academic careers. The group then boarded veteran alumnus Kentavious White’s party bus to celebrate the new school year on Arthur Avenue.

New Benefits Help Grow Veteran Community

Also working in the veterans’ favor, Fordham recently signed a new Yellow Ribbon agreement that authorized an unlimited number of seats to eligible incoming veterans. While Fordham has long covered all tuition expenses for eligible post-9/11 veterans and their dependants under the Yellow Ribbon program, there had been a limit on how many of these students the University could accept. The new agreement initiated by the University, coupled with the recently-passed Colmery Act (also known as the Forever GI Bill), helps expand benefits and education opportunities for service members, said Matt Butler, director of military and veteran Services at Fordham. For example, under the Forever GI Bill, veterans pursuing STEM fields who have exhausted their benefits can receive an additional $30,000 toward a STEM-related degree. The act also extends benefits to those who are still serving.

“In the coming two years, active duty service members and their active duty spouses can participate in the Yellow Ribbon program,” said Butler. “That also holds the potential to help us expand our veteran community here at Fordham.”

Butler said that in addition to providing transitional support for veterans, FVA also provides leadership opportunities within the organization.

Military and Veteran Services director Matt Butler gives tour of the Lincoln Center campus.
Military and Veteran Services Director Matt Butler gives a tour of the Lincoln Center campus. Photo by Tom Stoelker

Making the Transition Smooth

Fordham is home to nearly 500 student veterans, active military, and their dependants, with most of them studying at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Because transition can sometimes be a delicate matter, the FVA is unlike most student organizations, said Wilson.

“I think it’s one of the most important student organizations here; it’s one that can’t fail,” said Wilson, who is a senior at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies. “I don’t think it’s any secret that service members face issues with transition and that’s what we want to combat.”

Wilson said that his journey to a leadership role was an unexpected one. Now completing a degree in organizational leadership, as well as being a fellow in the Veterans for Global Leadership, run by a Fordham alumnus, he said that his penchant for leadership springs from military service.

“I’m not an anomaly, everybody in this room has the same potential,” he said. “Given the environment that we come from, all we just need a little push, a little bit of mentorship. If we can do that, then these guys will be killing it.”

Part of that mentorship and support needs to come from the civilians, which is most of the Fordham community, he said. Wilson cited great support from professors and staff at the University, in particular from Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. He recalled a conversation where Father McShane asked him tough questions and challenged him to aim higher.

“I was talking to Father McShane and he asked, ‘Well what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well I wanted to be in civil service …’ and he cut me off. And he said, ‘No. You want to be governor of South Carolina,’” recalled Wilson. “That kind of encouragement reinforced what I learned in D.C. in Global Leadership. It made me think, ‘Maybe I am a little bit different and maybe I should be striving for those opportunities.’”

The new cohort of student veterans
The new cohort of student veterans

Wilson said that he hopes to make bridging the gap between civilians and veterans a cornerstone of the work done by FVA. He said that staff from Career Services and the Office of Prestigious Fellowships have been very helpful. But sometimes, he said, faculty and staff do not understand the vast experience of service members.

“I still think that they need a little bit of insight on the experiences that we have,” he said. “Every now and then, I’ll work with a civilian person who treats me as if I’m an 18-year-old college kid. When I was in the army, I was leading 12 to 15 soldiers, and now I’m out. I’m a civilian. But that doesn’t erase my experience.”

Wilson said he wants the Fordham community to respect the experience of service members in their midst and to tap into their abilities.

“We have to understand that these men and women have some of the best leadership experience,” he said. “They also have to understand some of our idiosyncrasies and what makes us who we are.”

The veterans wrapped up the orientation by boarding PCS alumnus Ken White’s party bus to Arthur Avenue.

Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.