TAMPA — Veterans are gaining support from a Google-backed program that aims to increase the number of veterans who attend and graduate from selective colleges and universities such as Vassar College.
The Veterans Posse Program, a first-of-its-kind initiative, provides funding and support for veterans seeking to attend elite institutions. As the first partner school, Vassar enrolled 11 veterans last fall in its freshman class, including a Purple Heart recipient, a tank commander and a medic. The college committed to admit similarly sized groups of veterans in at least its next three freshman classes.
"Our president realized we were really missing veterans on campus," Vassar professor Benjamin Lotto said. "We're indebted to this country, so we owe it to our veterans to make Vassar a welcoming place."
Lotto, the faculty adviser for Vassar's first veterans posse cohort on campus, spoke to alumni and representatives from MacDill Air Force Base at a reception Thursday evening at the Tampa Club.
Google awarded the Veterans Posse Program a $1.2 million Global Impact Award in November, which will help the program expand to other colleges and universities. Wesleyan University will welcome its first Veterans Posse in fall 2014, and the Posse Foundation hopes to expand to at least 10 institutions in the future.
"It's great we're doing this at Vassar, but I consider this program a failure if it doesn't expand," Lotto said. "The more people that know about this the better. The program's not a success unless it scales."
Noticing a communications gap between selective schools and veterans, Vassar tried for several years to recruit veterans, but was unsuccessful before this program.
"Those veterans' voices were missing from our campus, so we needed to work as hard as we could to recruit those veterans to our campus," Lotto said.
The college, which is in New York, receives a lot of federal money and felt it owed it to those who served in the military to open its doors and provide an equal chance at a high-end education, Lotto said.
The veterans arrive on campus in groups of about 10, forming a cohort that provides a community and sense of inclusion, a key aspect of the posse model.
Some of the challenges the students faced were more specific to their status as veterans. For instance, many must balance schoolwork while also raising children or caring for a family. One unexpected difficulty was working with the local Veterans Affairs office so veterans could schedule appointments that didn't interfere with classes.
But for the most part, the hurdles veterans faced their first semester were similar to any other freshman: learning the layout of campus, improving time management or figuring out how to plan when they have three papers due the same week.
An increase in veterans also would help grow the diversity of the school as the students bring different perspectives and experiences to the campus and classrooms.
"It's phenomenal to see any institution take the opportunity to bring more diversity to their population," said Maj. Josh Hawkins of the force support squadron at MacDill.
Lotto said he had already seen examples of the students helping to change the conversations on campus.
He told the story of a parent who was elated to learn that her son was in an urban studies class with a 30-year-old veteran who had worked full time in New York. Think about the experience and perspective that veteran brings to classroom discussions, she told Lotto.
MacDill will have information about the Veterans Posse Program available to all members on base at the education office, Hawkins said.
"You can almost feel the patriotism of America in welcoming back veterans, and Vassar is only emulating that with this program and opening its arms to veterans," retired Brig. Gen. and former MacDill Wing Cmdr. Chip Diehl said. "Their success is going to see more veterans migrate to the warmth of Vassar."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.