On August 5, 2013, I finished a transcontinental bicycle trek. Initially, I intended to pack 30 pounds of gear on my bike, sleep under the stars, explore the regional landscapes of the United States, and see where the road would lead me. What developed over the two years I planned and then completed the bike trek was a campaign that transcended my concept of 'self'. "Bike America: Student Veterans Ride for Education" came at a critical time for me personally, but also for student veterans all across the nation's college campuses wondering where they fit in to their new environments and where they fit in to the future of this country.
Today's student veterans are at a critical point in American history. We have the opportunity to significantly influence the public discussion about the future of veterans in our country, but we also have to seize this opportunity to create change.
I am a veteran. I served for seven years in the U. S. Air Force and New York Air National Guard and deployed three times in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. I am also a doctoral student in the Department of Applied Anthropology at the University of South Florida. My belief that political engagement and academic research can be mutually enriching is the foundation of my work and my reason for advocating for increased participation within the veteran population. The bike ride was just the vehicle used to deliver this targeted message to the public and other student veterans. With the help of SVA, mtvU and the USF media relations team, we were able to draw national attention to both the barriers and opportunities that exist for the nation's student veterans.
When I returned from Iraq in the spring of 2007 and decided to go to college, the campus environment was vastly different from what we are seeing at our nation's universities today. Student Veterans of America (an organization that didn't even exist when I returned from deployment) is a nationally-recognized organization with local chapters at more than 850 campuses throughout the country. This number is impressive, but local chapters still struggle to develop an active membership from the larger student veteran population. At USF, there are more than 2,000 student veterans and dependents on campus, but only 15 active members in the SVA.
So why does student engagement in an organization that has the potential to positively impact the national discussion concerning their futures prove so elusive?
I conducted a quick poll of my network of student veterans, asking: "What do you feel are the biggest barriers to student veteran engagement on your campuses?" The most popular responses:
- lack of information provided to students when they arrive on campus;
- a disconnect between the university-sponsored Offices of Veteran Services and the student-run veterans organizations;
- difficulty in finding student veterans willing to challenge the status quo;
- and, most disturbing, a growing trend toward the non-disclosure of veteran status by those who leave the service.
One student veteran leader noted the difficulty in navigating the bureaucracy surrounding their education benefits. Others responded that when they came to college they did not want to be bothered with anything that concerned the military because they just finished "volunteering." Another student added there is such a stark disconnect between the structured military environment and the unstructured atmosphere of the university that it can overwhelm student veterans and make them less interested in volunteering their time to an organization.
It also seems clear that issues of non-participation go much deeper. My experience working with student veterans in higher education has led me to believe that not participating in veterans groups on campus may correlate with a system of symbolic violence that many veterans have experienced during their time in service.
Current headlines are filled with stories about military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. Our population needs to engage in public discourse now more than ever before.
I am devoted to this cause because I see student veteran organizations as vehicles of social change. Public policy is supposed to be influenced by public discourse, and yet veterans themselves are on the sidelines.
We cannot be passive.
A national discussion is unfolding about who we are, what we need to succeed, and how our past experiences shape our futures. But we must never forget: We are the narrators of our own history. If we do not take control over how the story is written, then it will be written for us, and like in so many cases, work against us.