Clarifying its vision and brainstorming about ways to better support student veterans within higher education, the Tennessee Veteran Education Task Force met Friday (Feb. 21) at the James Union Building on the MTSU campus.
Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs and task force chair, started the meeting by calling for the group to clarify its overall vision based on ideas presented at its first meeting. After some discussion, the group adopted a vision of becoming the No. 1 state in the country for veteran educational achievement and employment.
According to the governor’s office, the task force is charged with the following:
- • To identify common educational hurdles for transitioning veterans;
- • To research best practices to serve student veterans;
- • And to make recommendations on improving opportunities for veterans to earn a certificate or degree beyond high school.
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee welcomed the group, which was created by Gov. Bill Haslam in November 2013 to better assist combat veterans returning to the classroom. The 10-member group is charged with identifying and recommending solutions for the sometimes unique hurdles that veterans face in pursuing an advanced degree or certification.
McPhee praised the efforts of MTSU faculty and staff to position the university as a leader in that regard. MTSU has been previously recognized for its support for student veterans by Military Times in its “Best for Vets: Colleges 2014” rankings and by G.I. Jobs magazine, which placed MTSU on its 2014 Military-Friendly Schools List for the third consecutive year.
“We truly believe at MTSU that our actions mean more than rhetoric,” McPhee said. “We believe that if it’s truly important, then we should invest in it.”
MTSU was the first school in Tennessee with an on-campus representative for VetSuccess, a collaboration between the university and the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide a place where students with military service can gather to obtain assistance and peer support.
“It’s really important and an honor to hear from our student veterans,” said Grinder, who listened intently as MTSU student and BRAVO member Sean Martin, a junior sociology major and only student member of the task force, gave an in-depth PowerPoint presentation.
Martin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who also served in Iraq, emphasized that concrete support from top education administrators was critical. Martin said he has been researching the issue of student veteran support for more than a year and offered a variety of best-practice recommendations for the group to consider.
They included veteran-specific orientation tours and extracurricular activities, peer mentoring networks, and a one-stop military services location on campuses. Following his presentation, the task force divided into groups to discuss specific ideas that were presented.
“We’re seeing more veterans coming to higher education, rather than the workforce, to get their degree,” Martin said. “Task forces are extremely vital. They are pretty much the linchpins on your campus.”
MTSU has a standing Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, as well as the student-led veterans group, Blue Raider American Veterans Organization, or BRAVO, both of which had representatives at Friday’s meeting. Dr. Hilary Stallings, manager for recruitment and resources for the MTSU College of Liberal Arts, is an adviser to the task force.
McPhee praised BRAVO president and Army veteran Malcolm Stallard for his group’s work in trying to help the roughly 1,000 student veterans at MTSU with their transition to and progress on the Blue Raider campus. The sophomore social work major, who served in Iraq from 2009 to 2010, attended Friday’s meeting.
The Veteran Education Task Force is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to raise the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school from where it stands today at 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025.
The task force, which will present recommendations to the governor in June, is scheduled to next meet March 28 at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville and April 28 at the University of Memphis.
Task force members include:
• Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner, Department of Veterans Affairs; task force chair
• Dr. Mary Lou Apple, president, Motlow State Community College
• Randy Boyd, special advisor to the governor for Higher Education
• Brian Gard, director of emergency management, University of Tennessee
• State Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairman, Senate Education Committee
• Sean Martin, student representative, MTSU
• Rep. Gerald McCormick, majority leader, Tennessee House of Representatives
• Linda Mullins, VA education counselor, Belmont University
• Dr. Rich Rhoda, THEC Executive Director
• Dr. M. David Rudd, provost, University of Memphis