Syracuse University Magazine

Yellow Ribbon Commitment

The University embraces the "New GI Bill," welcoming post-9/11 veterans to campus

By Amy Speach

There's a new population of students taking up residence at Syracuse University, and you'll often find them gathered in a room on the third floor at 700 University Avenue. They aren't typical students—most are in their late 20s or 30s, and some are married with young families and new mortgages. But you're still likely to hear them talking about classes, exams, and SU sports. The difference is that, in addition to telling each other tales of campus and classroom life, these students might be overheard exchanging war stories—literally. They are veterans of the U.S. military, many of whom have served in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they are sharing a new challenge—pursuing higher education—and SU is doing all it can to ensure their success. 

Their meeting place is the Veterans Resource Center (VRC), a lounge and study space housed at University College (UC) and staffed by six student veterans whose work-study positions are funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and who receive training and resources from other local veteran organizations. "Our student veterans bring unique character, integrity, and life experience to campus," says Peg Stearns '05, financial aid director at UC. As the resource center's VA certifying officer, she helps student veterans process paperwork for their benefits. "We've had fun getting to know them and getting the resource center up and running," she says. "Right now, we are still growing, but the students want to make this a one-stop kind of place, where veterans on campus can learn about resources available to them at the University and in the community. We share that goal, and are working with them to do that."

open ceremonies

The center, which officially opened on Veterans Day, was established as the centerpiece of a University-wide endeavor to welcome student veterans and provide them with personalized services to ease the transition to campus life. At the heart of that effort is SU's participation in the Yellow Ribbon Education Enhancement Program, through which it began offering benefits to post-9/11 servicemen and women and their dependents in the 2009-10 academic year. The program is a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, also known as the "New GI Bill." It is considered the most extensive educational assistance package since the original GI Bill of Rights in 1944, providing tuition assistance, a housing allowance, a stipend for books and supplies, and the option to transfer benefits to family members in certain situations.

This semester, 100 student veterans and 37 student dependents of veterans are taking advantage of educational benefits at SU. Through the VRC, they have access to academic and financial aid advisors and other sources of support that address issues unique to their circumstances, including information about child-care grants and help in finding affordable, high-quality child care; information about how benefits are affected if they are deployed; special assistance in career planning and disability services from SU offices; and referrals to community-based services, such as the Syracuse Vet Center and VA Medical Center. "Syracuse University's participation in the Yellow Ribbon program demonstrates our longstanding commitment to supporting our nation's veterans," says Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric F. Spina. "The entire institution is embracing the program in order to provide contemporary veterans with an undergraduate or graduate education that might otherwise have been cost prohibitive." 

mike rivezzo

Real Soldiers Wear Orange

One of the regulars at the VRC is Michael C. Rivezzo '10, a finance major at the Whitman School of Management and president of the new Student Veterans Club, a student-driven initiative that further supports veterans at SU. Rivezzo joined the military soon after 9/11, inspired by his father's work in Manhattan following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "My father was one of the first responders, and was working 24-hour shifts after 9/11 as an iron worker doing cleanup," says Rivezzo, a fourth-generation combat veteran. "I felt a great duty to join because of that."

A soldier in the Army Reserves and the National Guard, Rivezzo was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, while an SU student. "I was there for a year, doing convoy security for a Navy Provincial Reconstruction Team on a route between Kabul and Kandahar in Ghazni Province," he says. "We also did a little bit of QRF—quick reaction force—which means we were the first responders if something happened on the road; say, if someone got hit with an IED [improvised explosive device]. We would escort a medic there to take care of anybody who was injured or needed help, or just get to the scene and wait for a helicopter to come."

Rivezzo credits two aspects of his military experience for helping him cope with the challenges of serving overseas: strong leadership that made him feel prepared and capable, and the camaraderie that developed between him and his fellow soldiers. In January 2009, he returned to SU just a month after coming home, eager to put war behind him and continue his education. "A lot of people I knew took some time off when they got back, but I was focused on finishing school," Rivezzo says. "I didn't want to sit in my house and think about what had happened in the last year. I wanted to move on, and I think that helped." At the time, he knew only one other Iraq veteran at SU, Kevin Thornberry '09, a fellow Whitman student. "I got a lot of support from him and found out we were a lot alike, both goal-oriented and going for the same degree. We became tight, talking about what we had been through."

Having a place to reestablish the closeness that can come from shared military experience is one of the things Rivezzo most appreciates about the resource center and the veterans club, and why he's active in both. "The thing I missed most when I came back was that camaraderie," he says. "It is life or death over there, and when you talk to your buddies, everyone is going through the same thing, and you get closer like that. Here, it's different. People worry over stuff like whether their iPhones have service. That takes some adjusting to. And talking with other student veterans helps a lot with that." 

jennifer pluta with mike rivezzo

Jennifer Pluta G'11 serves as an advisor for the Student Veterans Club and brings a comprehensive perspective to the role. "I'm a veteran myself, as well as an SU employee and a graduate student in the School of Education, so it seemed a natural fit for me to be involved this way," says Pluta, an internship coordinator at the University's Center for Career Services. "And I am humbled to do so. They are a great bunch of people, and I am very excited to be working with them. They make it easy. They are very driven, goal-oriented, and proactive, and they want to engage with the SU community as well as the greater Syracuse area community."

A reservist, Pluta enlisted after graduating from college in 1999 and was deployed in 2003 with the construction support unit of the 770th Engineer Company out of Penn Yan, New York. Like Rivezzo, she felt it was her duty—and privilege—to serve. "Since I was a child, I wanted to join the military and serve my country," says Pluta, also a career counselor in the Army Reserve Careers Division, Region 1. "My parents instilled a lot of American history in us during our childhood, taking us to Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. I grew up feeling honored to be an American, and believing it was my duty to serve my country and contribute to the freedoms I have. It was something I thought I should do." 

Pluta's primary occupation overseas was to drive dump trucks in road-paving projects along the main supply route between Kuwait and Iraq. "When the initial engagement happened, there were no roads on the bases, and no roads to get to the bases," she says. "Everybody was just in tents in the desert." By the time she left, her unit had constructed roads, parking lots, security points, and staging areas. "We did a lot in a short amount of time, and it was very exciting," she says. "But as you can imagine, a year of driving for 16 to 18 hours a day, six or seven days a week, gave me a lot of time to think about the future. And I knew at that point I wanted to continue my education once I got home."

Although not yet ready to enroll in a degree program, Pluta began taking classes at the University in 2004. Because it had been years since she was an undergraduate, a sense of isolation pervaded her early days at SU. "I felt lonely," she says. "I was still transitioning from my deployment experience to civilian life. I wish there had been a veterans center here then to help me navigate the University and find someone to talk to and connect with." She's proud to participate in current efforts to support veterans and help make their experiences more appealing right from the start, and sees the Student Veterans Club as an important part of that.

The interest and drive for making the club a reality came largely from Dave Mancuso, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves and former SU graduate student. Working with Peg Stearns and following guidelines established by the Student Veterans of America (SVA), he initiated the club last fall. The group is now an officially recognized SU student organization and an SVA chapter with about 30 members, meeting on Wednesday evenings at the resource center. "The main idea is to make sure there is a comfortable environment at Syracuse for veterans," Mancuso says. "With the New GI Bill, there are a large number of veterans coming here now. We want to ensure they have what they need and that they are aware of and know how to access all of the benefits they're eligible for."


A Tradition of Service

The University has a proud record of supporting veterans, from its historic role educating the post-World War II generation under the original GI Bill to its dedication to post-9/11 servicemen and women. Perhaps more than any other private university in the country, Syracuse was closely identified with the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, the original GI Bill. Chancellor William P. Tolley served on the U.S. presidential committee whose proposals formed the basis of the legislation, which included a college education for millions of returning veterans. Tolley also announced Syracuse's "uniform admissions program," promising everyone entering the service that there would be a place for them at SU when they returned. During those years following WWII, the University ranked first in New York State and 17th in the country in veteran enrollment, and the SU Hill was covered with prefabricated Quonset huts to house the rush of new students. The University also established auxiliary regional campuses in Utica and Endicott, New York, to accommodate every qualified applicant.

dean bea gonzalez with member of armed services

University College Dean Bea Gonzalez G'04, who leads SU's Yellow Ribbon program, is proud to be building anew on the tradition of honoring veterans. "I'm glad for the opportunity to continue SU's commitment to our soldiers," she says. "It could be that here on our third floor, in the Veterans Resource Center, we are seeing in these student veterans what will become the next 'Greatest Generation.' We're proud they're here, and I think they are happy to be here." SU was named a 2010 "Military Friendly School" by G.I. Jobs magazine, a recognition that testifies to the caring and collaborative efforts of individuals and departments across the University, Gonzalez says, and one that brings with it a huge responsibility. "We have an obligation not only to embrace our veterans, but also to ensure their transition from military life to civilian and academic life goes as smoothly as possible," she says. "We are here to support them in their academic endeavors, advise them in selecting courses, and assess their financial aid eligibility to find the resources they need to continue their higher education."

Pluta agrees the honor is well-deserved, and believes the University will continue to expand its efforts on behalf of veterans as the population grows and the full extent of their needs becomes apparent. "I think the opening of the resource center is a fantastic new start to supporting veterans here at SU," she says. "My hope is to see that grow and for the veterans to utilize the space to a greater capacity. I'd like to see a mentor program developed, pairing incoming veterans with experienced SU student veterans who can give them more of an inside track and provide that instant connection to put them at ease. And I'd like to see SU become a place where veterans naturally want to go because they know there is a support system in place and a well-defined program where they can transition easily from active duty and find the help they need for themselves and their families."

Rivezzo, too, is focused on a better future for himself and other veterans. "I'm interested in helping people, especially veterans who choose the education route," says Rivezzo, who plans to go to law school. "I hope they do choose it, because they have access to these amazing benefits. I want to make sure everyone is taken care of. That's what motivates me now. I look forward to being an advocate for veterans' issues. I definitely have no regrets about being in the military. I'm glad I did it. I wouldn't trade my experiences for the world, and I think it has made me a better person."





Honoring a Fallen Soldier

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The James Lyons '03 Memorial Scholarship Fund Benefits Children of Veterans

As the namesake of his great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, James Lyons '03 grew up with a strong sense of respect and appreciation for the military. So when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit, he knew it was time to serve his country. What he couldn't have realized was the extent to which his commitment—and ensuing sacrifice—would also impact his alma mater. On September 27, 2006, the first lieutenant and tank platoon leader was shot and killed in Baghdad while defending a strategic facility against enemy forces. His heroic death at age 28 sent shockwaves through his hometown of Rochester, New York, and saddened the hearts of those on campus who knew him. It also led those closest to him to establish the James Lyons '03 Sons and Daughters Memorial Scholarship Fund to benefit children of fallen veterans and of veterans with disabilities.  

A biochemistry major who came to SU to prepare for medical school, Lyons graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a year of ROTC under his belt and enrolled in Officer Candidate School. Additional training led to an assignment in Fort Hood, Texas, and then to deployment to Iraq. "James was a respectful and determined young man," says his academic advisor, Christina Walker G'05, now an assistant director of development in SU's Office of Gift Planning. Her words are echoed by Lyons's father. "James was caring and supportive of anyone in need," Bob Lyons says. "But he was also humble. Most people never heard about his good deeds."

After his death, Lyons's fiancée, Hillary Trent '02,  and Marc Klein '03, a fraternity brother, looked for a way to honor him that would also help others. They established a scholarship in his name in 2007. Since then, they have held three summer fund-raising events in New York City, receiving more than $50,000 in gifts and pledges from alumni and friends. "When a parent is killed or seriously injured in the line of duty, the challenge of coping is enormous for the family," Klein says. "And the burden of providing financial support for a child's college education is nearly insurmountable. This scholarship gives these children the chance to attend SU, so they can build better lives for themselves in the aftermath of a tragedy."

 Lyons was highly decorated, having earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Meritorious Service Medal, among other military honors. "It's important to have something positive result from James's sacrifice," Bob Lyons says. "This scholarship will be a way to support the families of those who have given so much to our country."  Klein agrees. "When James graduated from college, he elected to serve our country instead of beginning a career," he says. "My hope is that this scholarship will honor his sacrifice, while instilling a sense of pride among our alumni."

For more information or to contribute, contact Christina Walker at 315-443-3991 or walker@syr.edu.




An Entrepreneurial Path for Veterans with Disabilities

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In 2003, after John Raftery '07 served in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and inner ear damage. Four years later, he took part in the inaugural Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), an intensive training program created and held at the Whitman School of Management. With EBV training, Raftery started his own business, Patriot Contractors Inc., which officially opened its doors in Dallas in September 2007. A construction services firm specializing in interior finish-out and design, Patriot anticipates generating more than $2 million in revenue this year and has six full-time employees-three of them veterans. "It's such a special program," says Raftery, who was awarded the first Richard Haydon ['66] Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2009. "If I hadn't gotten into it, I'd probably still be sitting in my cubicle at a job I really didn't like, or I might have jumped out on my own and fallen on my face because I didn't have the tools to make it happen. So it has been a very big part of my life and my family's." 

The idea for the EBV program originated with entrepreneurship professor Mike Haynie, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 13 years before coming to SU in 2006. "The rate at which our soldiers, sailors, and marines were returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with disabilities as a result of their service was unprecedented," Haynie says. "We saw an opportunity at the Whitman School to take something we do well-teaching entrepreneurship-and create a path forward for these men and women." The program was launched in August 2007 with a class of 20 veterans from all the service branches, coming from states across the country. Less than three years later, 70 percent of those vets are operating businesses and generating revenue that is their sole source of income. "I think that's important to note," Haynie says. "They aren't just running businesses on the side. This is how they make a living."

The 14-month program, which includes online, campus, and mentorship phases, is experiencing success that reflects the achievements of its alumni. In 2008, the EBV Consortium of Schools was formed by SU, Florida State University, UCLA, Texas A&M, Purdue, and the University of Connecticut. "The program created here at Whitman is offered at each of those campuses, with the capacity now to serve 200 vets with disabilities a year nationally," Haynie says. Syracuse remains the national host, overseeing the rigorous application process, as well as marketing and recruitment efforts. Fall 2010 marks the launch of an additional program for the spouses and family members of severely wounded veterans. 

Funding for EBV, which was named a national "best practice" among programs serving soldiers and their families by the U.S. Army in 2009, comes almost entirely from SU alumni and corporate partnerships. "This is a social venture, in that it is offered entirely free to the veterans," Haynie says. "We have had guys who were living at the Veterans Administration dormitories and had only $30 in their pocket when they came here." Alumni are also an essential part of the program's final phase, which pairs the new entrepreneurs with experienced and successful volunteer mentors. "It's a very robust mentorship program," Haynie says. "That's where the real magic happens in helping veterans get their businesses off the ground."

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In partnership with the EBV, PepsiCo Inc. will donate at least $1.5 million to the program over the next three years. Through its Dream Machine initiative, PepsiCo is collaborating with Waste Management to increase U.S. beverage container recycling and raise funding for EBV. The company will donate an additional $250,000 for every 10 million pounds of containers collected at Dream Machine kiosks. To learn more, visit the Dream Machine site on Facebook.

 

 

 





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