A Support Base
When Arturo Ospina arrived at Northwestern a decade ago after five years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, the adjustment was not immediate for the 26-year-old.
“From a veteran perspective, it was a lonely experience,” says Ospina (McC05), who led an amphibious assault unit in the Marines. “If I had to count the people who were veterans in McCormick, I could do so on one hand — and I would have several fingers left.”
The new Northwestern University Veterans Association seeks to reduce the isolation experienced by student-veterans and advocate for the former service members as they transition to civilian life. NUVA co-founder Paul Knudtson (SCS13), an active duty reservist with 18 years of military experience, says the organization provides common ground.
“It’s a source of camaraderie,” the U.S. Army first lieutenant says. “First and foremost NUVA members can offer an ear, somebody who’s been through the process.”
Under the umbrella of the rapidly expanding national Student Veterans of America (now with more than 850 chapters and in all 50 states), NUVA aims to provide veterans with access to the resources, support and advocacy they require to succeed at Northwestern and beyond. Knudtson says that includes help with understanding the admission process, making sense of financial aid, overcoming academic challenges and balancing school and family life.
There are more than 200 Northwestern students using veteran benefits, and that number is expected to grow as more and more soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines return from combat and transition out of the military. A recent survey found that, not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of student-veterans at Northwestern are older, are married, have families and don’t live on campus. Knudtson, the father of five, says veterans come to Northwestern with different needs and priorities from the average undergrad.
Knudtson, who graduated in June, started at SCS in fall 2007, then took a few years off for training and a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan, where he helped rebuild war-torn towns. He returned to Northwestern in fall 2011 and completed his final three courses during spring quarter as independent studies while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. That’s a sign of an increasingly veteran-friendly campus, he says. “That flexibility didn’t exist a few years back.”
Last September President Schapiro signed the Valuing Veterans Pledge, declaring the University’s commitment to increase outreach and recognition of veterans, provide transition services and establish support policies and procedures. Northwestern also launched the veterans service committee. The group of faculty, staff and students coordinates with NUVA to deal with veterans’ issues.
Political science professor Will Reno joined the committee to help bring more veterans to Northwestern.
“I’m very keen on having veterans in the classroom,” says Reno, who is working with several veterans on research questions related to the politics of conflict. “Their time in the military provides them with an excellent basis for asking the right questions and for putting together practical research plans in conflict and post-conflict societies.”
When SCS graduate student Rodrigo Garcia’s public administration class discussed whether the United States erred in its intelligence during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Garcia, the lone military veteran in the class, was able to provide unique insights. “The perspective wasn’t whether the U.S. was right or wrong,” says the former Marine, who is now chair of the board of directors for Student Veterans of America and assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “I just shared the divergent discussions that occurred on the ground as troops were crossing into Iraq,” comments that he felt enriched the conversation and increased the diversity of thought.
Knudtson wants to see more students like Garcia in Northwestern classrooms. That’s a crucial role for NUVA, to recruit the best and brightest veterans — “strategic assets,” Knudtson says — to the University. Ospina takes that vision one step further. He hopes that the Northwestern veterans organizations can create a pipeline from the battlefield to Northwestern to the corporate boardroom.
As a member of the board of the NU Club of Greater New York, Ospina is spearheading the formation of a Northwestern veteran and military alumni club to lay the foundation for the veteran pipeline. To become a member, visit military.northwesternnyc.com.