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U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Megan Stanton ’12 and Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Dash ’13 are among the nearly 160 military-connected students who attended St. Joseph’s College in 2011-2012 (Photos by Robert Amsler).

When my cousin returned to New York from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about talking to him. For me, there was a fine line to walk between the 21-year-old I used to babysit and the lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps who had surely seen things in the previous six months that were far beyond my power to comprehend.

Was I supposed to dive right in and ask about his experiences, or leave it alone for fear of touching on a sensitive or painful subject? Was this a hardened veteran, or a kid who had been through something truly terrible? Or both?

In the end, the conversation proceeded smoothly and the war-movie clichés were thankfully absent. But the fact remains that there is a vast disconnect between those who fight and the people they fight for. Cliché or not, their sacrifices are not easily understood by those of us who have never walked in their shoes.

The administration, faculty and students of St. Joseph’s College, through a series of initiatives on and off campus, are working to bridge the gap.

Reaching Out

For more than 60 years, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — more commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights — has provided financial support for millions of American military veterans in the form of unemployment insurance, low-cost mortgages and other loans, and access to vocational training and higher education.

In 2008, Congress approved an expansion of these benefits for veterans who served after September 10, 2011. This Post-9/11 GI Bill greatly enhanced the educational component of the original, providing a tuition benefit of up to 100 percent for those who served for at least 36 months, or served at least 30 continuous days before being discharged with a service-connected disability. The bill also provides an annual $1,000 stipend for books and supplies, as well as a monthly housing allowance.

Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in August 2009, St. Joseph’s has seen its population of military-connected students (active-duty service members and veterans) jump from fewer than 20 in 2006 to about 160 in 2011-2012.

SJC’s special tuition rate for service members is a major contributor to this spike in enrollment, as are the College’s small class sizes and flexible schedules that include evening, weekend and online classes. Perhaps the biggest selling point is the presence of full-time military advisers John Keenan and Shannon O’Neill.

Mr. Keenan and Ms. O’Neill work for the School of Professional and Graduate Studies (PGS) on the Brooklyn and Long Island campuses, respectively, but their roles as military liaisons connect them with all aspects of the academic and military communities.

“Our military students are Arts and Sciences students, they’re PGS, they’re weekend/evening, full-time day …” Ms. O’Neill explains. “Once they register with us, we guide them all the way through from admission to graduation.

“Whatever additional help they might need, whether it’s filling out their applications, getting their transcripts, going through the admissions process … if they’re in the National Guard or reserves and get called up for training and have to miss a few weeks of class, we’ll work with their faculty members to try to advocate on the student’s behalf.”

Even before registration, Mr. Keenan and Ms. O’Neill are constantly reaching out to active-duty military, Guard, reservists and veterans through open houses and visits to local armories, VA hospitals and other organizations.

“Our goal is to let people know what education benefits they are eligible for — benefits that they’ve earned, that they deserve to have,” Ms. O’Neill says, “and also let them know a little bit about the benefits of coming to St Joseph’s: what makes us special and what makes us different … that we’re a private college that they can go to at an affordable rate.”

The Brooklyn Campus also offers classes at Fort Hamilton, an Army garrison near Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and Fort Wadsworth, a Coast Guard base on Staten Island. As a supplement to on-campus and online classes, these two locations add an extra degree of scheduling flexibility for our active-duty students.

Transitioning to an academic setting from a military one can be difficult, especially when many veteran students carry the added burden of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or physical disability. Mr. Keenan and Ms. O’Neill work closely with SJC’s Office of Career Development, Wellness and Disability Services to ensure that each student’s individual needs are met.

As a testament to the efficacy of St. Joseph’s military outreach and advisory programs, the 2012 PGS valedictorians for both campuses are also active-duty military students: Coast Guard Ensign Corinne Powers of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Megan Stanton of Patchogue, N.Y.

Ensign Powers currently serves as a deck watch officer on the cutter Willow in Newport, R.I.; she plans to pursue a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in international development from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Tech. Sgt. Stanton, a 2004 graduate of Patchogue-Medford High School, began her executive M.B.A. program at St. Joseph’s over the summer. She will be relocating to San Antonio, where she will work in the information technology section of the medical-education training center at Fort Sam Houston.

Service Learning

Long Island is home to more than 250,000 veterans, and two major facilities provide them with specialized medical care and rehabilitation services: the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Northport and the Long Island State Veterans Home (LISVH) in Stony Brook. St. Joseph’s College enjoys a longstanding relationship with both.

“We’ve had established affiliation agreements with both of those agencies for a number of years, and we’ve had students intern periodically at each respective facility,” says Gail C. Lamberta, Ph.D., associate academic dean, recreation and leisure studies chair, and SJC’s coordinator of experiential learning.

The internships she refers to are in the field of in therapeutic recreation: the provision of treatment and recreation services to persons with illnesses or disabling conditions. Since 2002, approximately two dozen of Dr. Lamberta’s students have interned at both facilities, where many current staff members are SJC alumni. They include Lee grace Cannella ’90, M.A., CTRS, director of therapeutic recreation at LISVH; and Susan Pisano ’98, M.S., CTRS, acting chief of recreation therapy services at Northport VAMC.

Susan Pisano ’98, center, and therapeutic recreation intern Lea Rocco ’13 work with a veteran at Northport VAMC.

“The internship is a growth-oriented reciprocal experience where everyone benefits,” Ms. Cannella explains. “The College is provided a training ground for future recreation therapists, and the facility is exposed to newly educated students who possess a fresh approach to clinical care.”

“The [VA] medical center benefits from the students as they bring their creativity, motivation and diversity to the veterans with their fresh ideas and specialized strengths,” Ms. Pisano agrees. “Students perform various assignments under the direct supervision of a certified recreation therapy specialist. The supervisor may also become a mentor to the intern who will enlighten the student about the field based on their own work experiences and professional connections.”

The 12-credit internship requires 560 hours in not less than 14 consecutive weeks. Accepted students work full-time hours on site and attend one class on the Long Island Campus each week. Interns provide direct care to veterans through therapeutic recreation programs and services at each of the respective sites, often rotating through various units, including Alzheimer’s, long-term care, psych and others.

“The students also do a lot of documentation,” Dr. Lamberta adds. “They learn how to apply the theories of documentation because they need to record progress notes and to determine whether or not the clients are meeting goals and objectives.

“The students also have some knowledge of all the administrative aspects. They need to see budgets, they need to understand how to manage and they need to know what it is to advocate for patients.”

In addition to the professional skills these interns acquire, they also gain insight into the unique needs of veterans of all ages.

“At the Long Island State Veterans Home, there is an older population, and the intergenerational connection is wonderful,” Dr. Lamberta says. “The veterans like telling their stories and the students like to hear their stories. Both veterans and students bring a lot to the table, and they are able to learn from one another. Although there are various groups with different needs at the VA in Northport, the same connections occur between the students and consumers.”

Blue Stars and Yellow Ribbons

The synergic relationship that St. Joseph’s College shares with Northport VAMC and LISVH is not limited to therapeutic recreation internships, though that program did prove to be the keystone for a more recent Collegewide initiative.

In 2010, Steven Fuchs, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Long Island Campus’ history department, was looking for an opportunity to volunteer, but wasn’t sure what cause he would support. That changed after a conversation he had with a student in his Contemporary International Issues class. The student, a veteran, had given a presentation about his ongoing struggle with PTSD.

“The class was really blown away by his courage and his own experience,” Dr. Fuchs says. “So I spoke to him at length after that class and encouraged him to keep speaking about the topic.”

The talk led Dr. Fuchs to explore volunteer opportunities with the Long Island State Veterans Home. “I went to the [LISVH] website,” he says, “and I was surprised that they needed more than just health care providers.”

Dr. Fuchs quickly recognized the facility’s potential as a center for service and experiential learning, which would soon become one of five integrated learning areas in the College’s new core curriculum.

“This seemed like a great opportunity to offer an experience across departments,” he says. “It wasn’t just going to be recreation or nursing; it could be history, business, English …” He began to seek out SJC colleagues and students who were interested, or already involved with, veterans’ issues. Dr. Lamberta, with her extensive contacts at LISVH and Northport VAMC, was an obvious collaborator. Before long, more than a dozen staff and faculty members were on board.

The partnership came to be known as Blue Stars and Yellow Ribbons: The St. Joseph’s College-Veterans Community Initiative. Its mission is to integrate the SJC community with those of the two facilities through the development of meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships that reflect both academic and co-curricular programs.

SJC alumna Lee grace Cannella ’90 is director of therapeutic recreation at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.

To date, the initiative has yielded a variety of on-site volunteer activities and on-campus events, including classroom visits, fundraisers and renovation projects by students and faculty. One of the most recent additions was a faculty lecture series at LISVH, spearheaded by business professor Ralph Nofi.

The Habitat for Humanity Club, for example, lead an extensive revitalization of the gardens at VAMC, while the Child Study Club renovated Community Living Center 4 to create “the sandbar,” a private area in the palliative-care unit that offers a peaceful and positive atmosphere to accommodate the children and grandchildren of hospitalized veterans during family visits. Students also donated more than $1,000 worth of board games, puzzles, coloring books, crayons and markers for the kids to enjoy.

On Earth Day, the Recreation Club took part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for LISVH’s new Butterfly Garden, and last December, the SJC Sharps, the all-female a capella group performed holiday music for the residents. Most recently, St. Joseph’s welcomed LISVH residents to the Long Island Campus as it hosted the Suffolk County Golden Games, an annual athletic competition for senior citizens.

“The veterans have responded very positively to all of the programs and interactions with the students,” Ms. Cannella says. “These visits let them know that they are not forgotten, that the sacrifices they made have value and are appreciated by future generations.”

Additional programs are in the works, including integration of the athletic department into the Blue Stars and Yellow Ribbons initiative. In the near future, SJC athletes may be running clinics and scrimmages at the two facilities. The next step, Dr. Fuchs says, is to incorporate more veterans into a classroom setting, and to offer service and experiential learning opportunities and co-curricular activities that students will be able to earn credit for under the new core.

Military, Connected

For students, staff and faculty alike, the newfound connection to those who serve or have served our country is an eye-opening experience. The influx of military connected students on campus over the past few years has had a profound effect on the College community, Dr. Fuchs says.

“They really have enriched campus life. Their presence is felt in class. Many of them, if you give them the opportunity to speak, are pretty forthcoming about what it is that they experienced, and quite willing to share their experiences with other students. I’ve been astounded by how courageous many of our students have been.”

The students who have visited the veterans’ facilities, despite some initial trepidation, have been equally moved by their visits.

“The students are making connections with people,” Dr. Lamberta says. “It is pretty remarkable that some have had the fear of being in those environments.

“When you hear VA in Northport, you hear Long Island State Veterans Home, your perception of what you might see, hear, feel, smell is, I’m sure, not desirable. In some cases there is a bit of fear, but once students become engaged, those fears tend to dissipate. Often, the perception of being in both facilities is that consumers will be non-responsive, especially in a nursing home, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

“The truth,” Dr. Fuchs says, “is that every single time we’ve made contact — whether it’s a club or the athletic department, students in the class — the students say, ‘What can I do now? We want to do this again.’

“I think this is true regardless of where students volunteer or engage in service learning: I think they always go in with the expectation of ‘How can I help?’ — that they’re going to do something for someone else. But what we’ve found consistently is that when students are done volunteering at the VA or at [LISVH], that they’re stunned by how much more they’ve received from the veterans than they’ve given. The truth is the veterans’ response has been absolutely wonderful to our students.”

***

In April, Lee grace Cannella, Stephen Fuchs, Gail Lamberta, Shannon O’Neill and Susan Pisano discussed SJC’s veterans initiatives on Telecare’s St. Joseph’s College: Transforming Communities.

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