Alan Ardelean has a fire in his belly.
For eight years, Ardelean channeled it into his work with the Marine Corps. He deployed twice, guarded several embassy posts and was on a number of security details for top government officials.
Now Ardelean has a different outlet for that fire: university lobbying.
Ardelean is part of a core group of former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that have worked vigorously with the university to better the benefits available for military veterans. Unlike many major universities, Georgetown does not have a full-time veterans office for undergraduates during the academic year. It provides scant funding for veterans projects and scholarships, and it did not include a question about military service on its application until this year.
“We are not attractive to veterans at all,” Ardelean says.
After three years of work, though, campus veterans are starting to see formidable changes on campus.
The process began tentatively in 2008 when Luke Lagera (MSB ’10) and several other students founded the University Military Association at Georgetown University. According to a national defense committee document, the organization was meant to “promote a positive military presence on university campuses, while providing a supportive social network for veterans, active duty and reserve personnel; thus, furthering the interests of our national defense community.”
Little had changed by 2009. In order to quicken the pace of progress, Spanish professor Barbara Mujicabegan coordinating with campus veterans during the fall of 2009, and a new organization emerged during the spring semester the Georgetown University Student Veterans of America. As a chapter of the national SVA organization, the student-run club had the guidance it needed to effectively gain exposure, and under the leadership of president Erik Brine (GRD ’11), vice president Colby Howard (SFS ’12) and Mujica, it began to lobby the university for financial aid.
Mujica, whose son is a Marine officer, recalls how the university had almost no policies in place before GUSVA intervened.
“We have made a lot of progress in terms of better visibility for veterans,” she says. “Compared to where we started, it’s amazing that we have anything at all.”
The first success was the university’s decision to increase its spending on the Yellow Ribbon Program, a voluntary scholarship endeavor in which the university donates money that is then matched by the Department of Veterans Affairs. University officials agreed to up their spending to $5,000 per undergraduate student, providing the student with $10,000 after the VA contribution.
Unfortunately, Ardelean says, the program is by no means perfect. Some veterans with increased Yellow Ribbon benefits saw their university financial aid package drop, meaning that their gains were minimal.
At the graduate level, though, the Yellow Ribbon scholarships have been a great help to students since the university does not provide them with any need-based financial aid. The School of Continuing Studies, for example, now provides $12,675 to student veterans through the program, over double what the undergraduates receive.
But GUSVA needed much more than just Yellow Ribbon funding. It needed a centralized veterans office.
For most veterans, GI Bill education benefits are complicated and befuddling. In order to facilitate communication with the VA, as well as to help students transition into civilian life, GUSVA began lobbying hard for a full-time office.
The School of Continuing Studies was able to establish a full time post for next year, but the university was unsure if it could provide one for undergraduates. Finally in February, a part-time office was arranged. It wasn’t the full-time position that GUSVA wanted, but it was a start.
“The administration is not hostile,” Mujica explains. “They are willing and open and nice. But there is a money problem.”
David Shearman (SFS ’11), a veteran of the Army, was selected to head up the new office, and he has worked about 15 hours per week through the spring semester. His primary focus has been to make connections within and outside of the university, and already he has been able to help prospective students navigate the application process and understand the financial aid that would be provided through the VA.
Still, he says, the office really needs to be a full-time endeavor. This summer, he plans to make it one, though in the fall he will resume his part-time work while taking graduate classes at the university.
Right now, Shearman’s office is on the third floor of Healey Hall, but the university will be moving it to a lower level room in the Car Barn in the coming weeks. The location isn’t as nice, but Shearman says that it will be better to finally have a set office space.
Howard was certainly pleased to see the part-time position established, but he says that the job really requires a full-time staff like the one The George Washington University has founded.
“The big shortfall really is that full-time position,” he says. “We need that.”
With the strides that it has made this year, GUSVA feels that it is in a good position to continue its push for benefits next year. It merged earlier this year with the UMAGU, and the focus now will be on turning the part-time undergraduate office into a full-time deal. It’s the waiting, Mujica says, that can be the most frustrating.
“It is slow. It is frustratingly slow, and I sometimes want to pull my hair out because the university will find money for other things that I don’t think are as urgent,” Mujica says.
The university says that it is looking forward to working with GUSVA in the future.
“We are committed to establishing services to meet the needs of our student veterans and have taken a number of important steps to better support our student veterans at Georgetown,” said university spokeswoman Rachel Pugh in an email. “Moving forward, we hope to continue to take appropriate steps to meet the needs of our student veterans.”
Across the hall from the future veterans office, Mujica says that there is an empty room that she would love to turn into a lounge. So far, she has not received university approval, but GUSVA is hoping to get its hands on the space if it is available.
“I can’t just go in there and claim it,” she says. “If it were [Ardelean], he would. He’d roll in with a tank or something.”
For the time being, however, GUSVA has its eyes set on the more immediate goal of campus exposure to the military, which the organization believes will help it garner more university support.
“There’s a whole lot more to do,” Mujica says. “I think we need to educate the university. I think there’s still some anti-military Vietnam sentiments in some corners of the university.”
Though the process has seemed painfully slow to some, Howard is ultimately pleased with the gains that he and his fellow veterans have made this year. He says that though he wishes the process would accelerate, the university is moving quickly on its own timetable.
“What seems to us a snail’s speed,” he says, “is to the university a breakneck speed.”