Valuing Veterans

President Steven Knapp and high-profile alumni bring focus on GW student veterans to conference on volunteering and service.

Steven Knapp and Tammy Duckworth
June 29, 2010

George Washington was mentioned so early and so often at the session “Enlisting Our Newest Generation of Volunteers” on June 28 at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service that it might as well have taken place in Foggy Bottom rather than New York.

President Steven Knapp noted that two of his three fellow panelists are GW alumni: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), B.A. ’77, and Tammy Duckworth, M.A. ’92, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The other panelist, Eric Greitens, chairman and CEO of The Mission Continues, a group that empowers wounded veterans, said his organization will be partnering with GW on the Freshman Day of Service in the fall. In one of her questions, Mary Yonkman, the moderator and chief of staff for a Washington-based public policy firm, noted that GW is a leader in reaching out to student veterans.

Student veterans bring their unique talents and energy to universities, said Dr. Knapp, and their extensive travel and experience translates into “educational enrichment.” “We benefit more from having them than they do from us,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to reintegrate them into the role of serving.”

“I see our job as helping them find their way back to who they are at the core,” Ms. Duckworth echoed.

Although soldiers are clearly heroes, they would be the first to tell you they are just doing their jobs, Ms. Duckworth said. But for younger soldiers, the job description has become so expansive that it includes missions like negotiating with tribal elders on irrigation and infrastructure. “I don’t know any other job where we put 22 or 23-year-olds in that position,” she said.

With higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than ever before in the veteran community, it is important to engage veterans struggling with transitions and give them a chance to serve again, Sen. Warner said in his prepared remarks.

But there are challenges to improving programs for veterans. “It was a heck of a lot easier as a governor to get Democrats and Republicans to work together than to get veteran organizations to collaborate,” Sen. Warner said.

All the panelists agreed that universities can play important roles in helping veterans transition from military to civilian roles. “I think universities have to be more intentional and deliberate,” Dr. Knapp said. “Until recently, we’ve had a pretty laissez-faire attitude.”

If universities choose to move slowly, they do so at their own risk, according to Dr. Knapp, as student veterans are not the types to wait around. After First Lady Michelle Obama issued her service challenge to the GW community, student veterans responded by helping local veterans and cleaning the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall. “What I was really struck by, and it made sense, was that our student veterans were at the forefront,” Dr. Knapp said.

According to the conference’s website, it is the “world’s largest gathering of volunteer and service leaders from the nonprofit, government and corporate sectors” and attracts about 4,000 attendees. Other speakers at the conference included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York Governor David Paterson, and representatives from Gap Inc., Capitol One, American Express, JPMorgan Chase, United Nations Foundation, Peace Corps, Craigslist, Twitter and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as several White House officials.

“The conference highlights some of the best and most innovative service and civic engagement programs in the world,” says Amy Cohen, executive director of GW’s Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service.

“It is clear that GW is a leader among universities, particularly in one of the areas highlighted at the conference: supporting student veterans in their transition home by engaging them as campus leaders in community and public service,” says Ms. Cohen.

GW is a leading participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program, part of the GI Bill, which provides returning veterans with enhanced access to private colleges and universities. The university has budgeted up to $2.8 million, which the Department of Veterans Affairs will match, for the program for the next academic year. Last year, more than 160 student veterans participated in the program.

“It was great to see Dr. Knapp speak on veterans issues today in such an informed manner on a high-profile platform,” says Presidential Administrative Fellow and Iraq War veteran Brian Hawthorne.

“I am looking forward to GW continuing to lead in this arena and hope that other schools will follow our example in student veteran engagement,” says Mr. Hawthorne, who is also president of GW Veterans. “This conference made it clear that there are many opportunities for us to work with other organizations that also want to help veterans contribute to the community.”

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