Advocating for Service Members
from the battlefield into the classroom
As a psychology major in his junior year, John Powers ’07, like many 21-year-old college students, was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. That changed when a close childhood friend, a U.S. Marine, came home injured from the war in Afghanistan.
Watching his friend struggle with the transition back into civilian life changed Powers’ life forever.
“I saw the effect of the deployment and how my friend’s family was impacted,” Powers said. “As a friend and as a civilian, I didn’t understand the military life, the re-adjustment issues these service members can face. Some return home with traumatic brain injuries or mental health issues and don’t have the right support in place.
A SALUTE TO URI
Recognizing URI’s comprehensive efforts on behalf of student veterans, G.I. Jobs Magazine named URI as a Military Friendly School for 2010. The honor ranks the University in the top 15 percent of all colleges, universities, and trade schools nationwide.
“I really wanted to support our nation’s warriors by doing something more than putting a yellow ribbon on my car,” he continued. “I am passionate about this work, and I have learned a lot about the people who serve our country. Working with them and advocating for them has made me a better person.”
During his final year as an undergraduate student, Powers developed the Veterans Resource Guide: Healing Our Veterans and Families, designed to provide veterans and their families with resources needed to help ease the stress of deployments, as well as the transition to civilian life.
Alum Recalls First GI Bill
George Geisser ‘48 spent four years as a combat engineer building bridges, often rudimentary ones out of stones, to help liberate Europe from Nazi occupation during World War II.
When he came home to Riverside, R.I., in 1946, he enrolled at URI on the first GI Bill. He and his brothers, Raymond Geisser ’48 and Russell Geisser ’51, were three of approximately 7.8 million veterans (out of a veteran population of 15 million) who used the benefit to go to college. The bill paid veterans’ tuition, books, and fees and also provided a monthly stipend.
“It was the greatest thing that the government ever did. There’s no question about that,” says Geisser, now 87, a retired civil engineer.
During his freshman year, the veteran lived with 20 or so other GIs in one of the Army surplus Quonset huts the University set up to house its exploding student population. He earned 50 cents an hour pulling weeds between the huts. He also joined ROTC as a private first class, retiring 28 years later as a lieutenant colonel.
When Geisser was a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge, he asked Virginia Cregan to a formal. The 1949 home economics graduate became his dancing partner for life. The couple married in 1948 and had six children, four of them URI alums.
By Jan Wenzel ’87
Photos courtesy of George Geisser
After graduation, Powers founded Operation Vets, a group dedicated to assisting transitioning service members. He also worked closely with former Dean of Students Fran Cohen and others to form the URI Supports Student Veterans Committee, composed of a broad representation of faculty, staff, and students from URI’s Kingston and Feinstein Providence campuses as well as members from federal, state, and local veterans agencies. The committee has examined a number of issues with the intent of easing veterans’ transition into college by removing enrollment roadblocks and supporting them while they are students at URI.
Powers’ work with student veterans at URI led him to co-found Student Veterans of America and to serve as its executive director. The organization is a national coalition of student veteran groups from college campuses across the country.
Powers played a key role in the grassroots effort to lobby for the federal Post-9/11 GI Bill, which was voted into law and went into effect on August 1. The bill makes it possible for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to earn college degrees. The bill contains the most comprehensive educational benefits since the original 1944 GI Bill.
Powers returned to Rhode Island in June and is now working with the URI Supports Student Veterans Committee, which is directed by Nancy Kelley, assistant dean of the College of Human Science and Services, and Christine Dolan, education specialist, special programs at URI’s Feinstein Providence Campus. Also working with them is Jeff Johnson, academic advisor, Feinstein Continuing College of Education.
Powers said the University has made great strides on behalf of student veterans in the last few years. “In the military world, everything is structured and regimented for the service members. Campus life is very different. We want to help veterans readjust, get an education, and gain employment. Beyond that, veterans are used to a strong sense of camaraderie; we want to create that feeling for them on campus. We want them to know they are going to be supported in their transition from military to campus life.”
Powers points out that veterans often have leadership and critical decision-making experiences: “Many of our student veterans are going to be the next leaders of our country; they are fantastic job applicants. When I was a 21-year-old student, I didn’t face life and death decisions. Many service members at that age have been in charge of entire units during wartime, having to make sure their troops were prepared.
“With service members coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, the need is greater now more than ever to support the men and women as they return to civilian life. More and more of today’s service members are not just on active duty but are reservists and National Guardsmen who have been called upon for multiple tours of duty.
“This is our generation of veterans, and I feel it is our responsibility to help them. As Abraham Lincoln pledged to our nation ‘to care for those who have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,’ I want to ensure this generation of veterans is cared for, and I want to make sure we never forget the sacrifices they have made for our country.”
To learn more, visit operationvets.com or email Powers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Shane Donaldson ’99
Photos By Nora Lewis, iStock, and courtesy of George Geisser