Nearly five years ago, World War II veteran and University of South Florida founder Sam Gibbons visited the campus to meet with a group of young Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. It was one of those special moments when the breadth of history and its connection to the present day is in plain view with all the resonance such a moment rightly demands.
Gibbons — who as a young man had been part of the heroic D-day invasion forces that liberated Europe and who then went on to attend law school under the G.I. Bill — sat side by side with student veterans fresh from modern conflicts. While nearly seven decades separated them, these individuals shared a sense of purpose forged under dire and dangerous circumstances.
For me as an educator, seeing these two generations together in this moment was akin to peering into a crystal ball and being assured that as long as veterans have access to quality higher education, our future will be in very capable hands.
This weekend, our country celebrated the 70th anniversary of the original G.I. Bill, perhaps one of our nation's most transformative acts pertaining to higher education after President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating land-grant universities in 1862. The emergence of a newly educated workforce in post-World War II America transformed our nation from one where higher education and professional careers were reserved for the privileged to one where higher education became a true stepping stone to upward mobility.
Gibbons was among the roughly 8 million Americans who forged new paths through the G.I. Bill, and went on to become an iconic public leader for Florida and the nation. In the 1950s, he joined with two other World War II veterans in the founding of USF — Gov. LeRoy Collins and John Germany, who also attended law school under the G.I. Bill.
Today, USF is the academic home to nearly 1,200 student veterans attending college under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. This diverse group of men and women strengthen our campus in immeasurable ways and contribute to the learning environment for all of USF's 48,000 students. As they graduate — just this spring 125 veterans crossed our commencement stage — these veterans bringing incredible knowledge, maturity, professionalism and leadership skills to the Tampa Bay region's workforce and communities.
USF has made special efforts to ensure the success of student veterans because we regard this group of students as an incredible asset for our community. We know young people who enlist in the military very quickly mature and assume leadership positions, particularly when deployed to war zones. They bring a deep understanding of the world and well-honed problem-solving skills. They often have young families and are deeply invested in creating a safer more secure world for their children. Most important, they recognize the enduring value of education.
Having seen vulnerable populations cowered and manipulated by extremists, they understand that education is vital for individuals to secure not only economic power, but democracy itself. Education is an investment in global peace and security, and who better to stand for that value than the men and women who have been on the front lines of war.
USF has taken a national leadership role in implementing the new G.I. Bill and was the first university in the nation to enter into an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide focused services to students attending under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. We are immensely proud to be recognized each year by Military Times EDGE magazine as one of the nation's top veteran-friendly institutions, and we advocated for and now celebrate a new state law granting in-state tuition to all honorably discharged veterans.
Our university's roots were planted by veterans when USF was just a dusty outcropping of buildings on a former World War II airfield, and among our first students were veterans from later conflicts using their G.I. Bill benefits. Now a major global research university, we recognize it is impossible to detach our existence from those who fought on foreign soil and returned home to build a strong and prosperous nation.
We honor our history by creating a welcoming and empowering environment for our era's veterans, who have well within their grasp the ability to become American's next great generation.
Judy Genshaft is president of the University of South Florida and today is joining with a coalition of university presidents organized by the White House to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill.