The Chancellor’s Desk: Saluting – And Helping – Our Vets

AT CUNY’s first-ever “Thank You for Serving” event on Nov. 1, I had the privilege of visiting with the many CUNY faculty, staff, and students who are veterans and to join with others at the University in thanking them for their distinguished service to our country.

As I told the assembled group, listening to their stories and experiences reminded me of the first time I met veterans as a very young boy. On a warm night in 1945, my mother took me to see a parade of soldiers walking from Avenue D to Avenue C on Seventh Street, where we lived. My mother gave me a pot and a wooden spoon and told me that while I was too young to understand what was happening, she knew that this experience would be etched in my memory for the rest of my life. Then I heard the bugles and the drums and out of nowhere came hundreds of returning veterans walking through Manhattan. Cheers emanated from those crowded on sidewalks, children banged on pots, and people cried out, “Thank you! Thank you!” Like many other women, my mother was crying. And she was right: That experience has stayed with me ever since.

Today, our veterans continue to return home from their military service — but they are not always met with parades and effusive gratitude. They may even be met with indifference or skepticism. And they may find themselves facing very real challenges as they try to return to their lives. As President Obama noted recently, almost 3 million servicemembers have transitioned back to civilian life over the past decade. A million more will return over the next five years. Yet more than 850,000 veterans nationwide remain unemployed.

Our CUNY veterans have served their country honorably, and the University is deeply committed not only to celebrating their return but to ensuring that they can access the opportunities and assistance they need to advance their educational, professional, and personal goals.

This includes the 3,000 student veterans currently enrolled at CUNY. This number represents a 55 percent increase in student veteran enrollment over the last two years alone. It places the University among the top 10 public university systems for student veteran enrollment.

It is critical that CUNY’s student veterans know how to take advantage of enhanced post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits, including tuition payments made directly to institutions, and living allowances and stipends for books and materials paid directly to students.

They must also be able to access appropriate assistance with the very real challenges faced by veterans across New York State — whether mental health issues, unemployment, or difficulties with their disability evaluations.

Several CUNY campuses have hired full- and part-time staff to enhance campus-based programs and services for student veterans. Their dedicated efforts help hundreds of student veterans navigate the University and the transition to civilian life. In fact, for the second consecutive year, The City University of New York has been recognized as one of the “Top Military-Friendly Colleges and Universities” by Military Advanced Education. The publication cited the University’s “inspired effort” in making it easier for our men and women in uniform to advance their careers by enhancing their education.

But there is much more that we can do to fully understand and address the challenges that may compromise the ability of our student veterans to have a full and rich experience at the University.

That’s why I announced at the “Thank You for Serving” event that the University is creating an ad hoc committee of the Council of Presidents to strengthen services to veterans. The committee will be chaired by President Tomás Morales of the College of Staten Island and will recommend changes in University policies and procedures in order to better serve our student veterans. The committee will draw on the suggestions and experiences of student and alumni veterans across the University, who know firsthand of the barriers that impede progress and the programs that have real potential.

The goal of the committee — just like the goal of our Office of Veterans Affairs, ably directed by Wilfred Cotto (U.S. Navy, retired), as well as all of our campus services and programs — is to improve student veterans’ engagement with their education, their success in their program of study and their preparation for the workforce. They have already given much to our country. Now we need to give them every opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

On behalf of the entire University, I extend my profound gratitude to all of our veterans and our sincere commitment to ensuring the support that every veteran has earned.