Watch the 2024 State of SVA
This speech was delivered on January 4, 2024 at SVA’s 16th Annual National Conference in Nashville, TN.
As I stand here today, I’m transported back to my first SVA NatCon as a student veteran in 2010. I was a 28-year-old Navy veteran, fresh from Brevard Community College and stepping into a new chapter at Florida State University. Like many of you, I found myself navigating a world that seemed designed for a different age group, where bureaucratic mazes felt more like obstacles than pathways.
Back in 2010, I had just finished my associate’s degree and was a transfer Junior at Florida State. I couldn’t have felt more like a fish out of water. My first few weeks on campus was a time of questioning – was this college journey the right path for me?
These experiences, these challenges we face, they aren’t just mine; they’re ours. It’s this shared journey that forges our bond.
Together, we are committed to creating campuses where every student veteran, every military-connected student, every family member, caregiver, and survivor fells welcomed and like they belong from day one.
Before we dive into our exciting agenda, let’s honor the land we stand on today, the homeland of the Cherokee and Shawnee peoples. We pay our respects and express our deep gratitude for their enduring stewardship of this land.
Now, to all our friends, colleagues, and the extraordinary student veterans, military-connected students, family members, caregivers, and survivors:
Welcome to the 16th Annual National Conference! A journey awaits us over the next three days of learning, networking, and some unexpected delights.
Reflecting on our remarkable 16-year journey fills me with immense pride and gratitude. Last year’s milestone anniversary for SVA marked the beginning of a discussion about a future we could scarcely have imagined back in 2008.
Today, I am honored to share our path forward into our future. A future that we will shape together, focusing on key themes that define us: student veteran success, chapter engagement, innovation, and inclusivity.
These pillars will guide our conversations and actions, not just in the days to come, but in the years that follow.
I’d also like to take a moment to express our heartfelt thanks to our Platinum NatCon sponsor, Boeing, and our Diamond sponsors, The Walt Disney Company and Johnson & Johnson. Your unwavering support makes not just this event, but our year-round endeavors, possible. To all our attendees, I encourage you to connect with our sponsors throughout the conference.
Their insights and support are invaluable, not just for us here, but for those back on your campuses who couldn’t join us for NatCon this year.
Let’s embark on this journey together, united in our mission and excited for what lies ahead.
Student Veteran Success:
In the heart of SVA’s mission lies our unwavering commitment to the success of student veterans. This past year has been a testament to that commitment, marked by extraordinary achievements both academically and personally.
During the SVA Washington Week in March, the voices of our veterans echoed in the halls of power in Washington, DC. As we delivered SVA’s annual policy priorities to a Joint Hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, Our Student Veteran of the Year, Josh Jones, exemplified this impact.
Josh, a Marine Corps veteran, is a senior at Loyola University Chicago in Illinois brought critical attention to the challenges faced by students in online courses, particularly the limitations of the housing allowance. Josh, and veterans like him, are reshaping the landscape for student veterans nationwide.
The resilience and leadership of veterans doesn’t just shine on a national stage, it also thrives in the heart of our chapters on campuses and communities across the country. This summer’s SVA Regional Summits revealed the depth of dedication within our community.
Our chapters, pulsing with life and energy, have made a tangible impact on nearly 50,000 student veterans and their families as a result of their chapter leaders attending Regional Summit this summer. This is the power of collective effort, the power of a community united in purpose.
I’d like to express my gratitude once more to Boeing. Their support has been a catalyst, enabling us to expand and enhance our programs, including Washington Week, Regional Summits, and the Leadership Institute – these three unique and impactful programs are what SVA calls our Leadership Continuum.
These programs have not just adapted to the post-pandemic world; they’re thriving in it, thanks to Boeing’s belief in our mission. And we hope to see all of you and your chapter members at Washington Week, at a Regional Summit, or at the Leadership Institute in Washington, DC this year.
But let’s also turn the spotlight on the individual triumphs within our community. Each story is a thread in the rich tapestry of our collective journey.
Take Brittany Andrade an Army veteran and senior at Vassar College in New York, whose initiative transformed storytelling into an empowering Women’s History Month exhibit.
This exhibit, celebrating the service of women in uniform from Vassar College, is not just a display; it’s a narrative that will soon grace the halls of the Loeb Art Center at Vassar and ultimately, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Or consider Caleb Lindsay an Army veteran who is a second year at Casper College, a community college in Wyoming. Caleb’s advocacy within the Wyoming state legislature has led to a comprehensive transition program for veterans, filling gaps left by traditional programs. His efforts resonate deeply, enhancing the veteran center on his campus and creating a space that truly reflects the needs of our community.
And there’s Angelina Trillo currently serving in the Oregon Army National Guard and a senior at Oregon State University, whose dedication to inclusivity and mental health advocacy has brought vital services and representation to her campus, making it a place where veterans truly belong.
These stories of individual dedication and community impact lead SVA to a significant new initiative within our organization — the conferment of the Presidential Service Medals. Inspired by the President’s Volunteer Service Award, established in 2003 by the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, this award recognizes the vital role volunteers play in strengthening our nation.
The President’s Volunteer Service Award honors those whose service has a profound impact on communities across the nation, inspiring others to take action as well.
It’s a tradition that has continued across the administrations of United States Presidents, celebrating volunteers tackling our nation’s most pressing challenges.
This tradition of honor and recognition is something we at SVA hold in high esteem. Awarding the Presidential Service Medals to worthy SVA chapter members is our way of acknowledging the extraordinary commitment and impact of our SVA chapter leaders.
These medals are not just awards; they symbolize the highest ideals of service and leadership.
They reflect the transformative power of volunteerism and the profound impact it has on our communities. Tomorrow, at the SVA Honors Luncheon, we will be proud to award the first of these medals, recognizing the exceptional efforts of our student veterans who have gone above and beyond in serving their peers, their campuses, and their communities.
This is our way of saying thank you, of acknowledging the hard work, dedication, and spirit of service that define the best of what it means to be part of SVA.
Every day, I am humbled by the innovative leadership and impactful changes you bring to your campuses. You are not just leaders; you are pioneers, setting a path for those who will follow. This is the essence of being an SVA chapter leader.
As we delve deeper into the heart of our organization, it becomes clear that the cornerstone of SVA lies in our chapters. Our SVA chapters are vibrant and dynamic, they are more than just groups on campuses; they are communities of support, growth, and empowerment.
This past year has been a remarkable one for chapter engagement. Across the nation, our chapters have exemplified what it means to be a part of SVA. They have organized events, initiated programs, and led community outreach efforts that have not only fostered camaraderie among student veterans but also bridged gaps with the wider campus communities.
The sense of belonging that our chapters provide is invaluable, and we are committed to strengthening these networks to ensure that no student veteran feels alone on their journey.
One shining example is the Auburn Student Veterans Association at Auburn University in Alabama. Their initiatives, like the Veteran Gala and Operation Iron Ruck, where student veterans, ROTC cadets and supporters from school rivals at Auburn University and the University of Alabama, Ruck the game ball for the annual Iron Bowl football game. The Iron Ruck demonstrates the power of collaboration and community involvement.
These SVA chapter leaders have turned a sports rivalry into a force for good, raising awareness for veteran mental health and ensuring that student veterans are recognized and supported.
Then there’s the Marshall University SVA, a beacon of belonging and understanding. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that student veterans feel at home on their campus.
Just in 2023 alone, they have participated in all SVA national programming, hosted VA TakeOver Days, helping their student veterans file claims, hosted the West Virginia-Navy Birthday Ball, organized programs benefiting the local community and supported Homeless Veterans in West Virginia.
Through their efforts, every student veteran at Marshall knows that they have a network of support and resources tailored to their unique experiences. They’ve shared with every stakeholder, from the University president and administration to local community leaders to state legislators the value proposition of an educated veteran population, and these stakeholders are responding enthusiastically.
And let’s not forget the Boston College Student Veteran Association, who have made it their mission to welcome and support veterans even before they set foot on campus.
Their outreach to incoming veterans and continued support throughout their first year is a model of proactive engagement and inclusivity.
These stories are a mere glimpse into the incredible work happening in our chapters nationwide. They are a testament to the impact that dedicated individuals can have when they come together with a common purpose.
This year, we have seen our SVA chapters not just meet the challenges presented to them but rise above them, creating environments where every student veteran, military-connected student, their families, caregivers, and survivors can thrive.
Our chapters are not just part of SVA; they are the very essence of what we stand for. They embody our values of service, leadership, and community. As we move forward, we are committed to supporting our chapters in every way possible, ensuring they have the resources, guidance, and recognition they deserve. Together, we are building a future where every student veteran has a place to belong, a community to engage with, and opportunities to grow.
This is the power of chapter engagement. This is the strength of our collective spirit.
Innovation isn’t just a part of what we do at SVA; it’s woven into our very DNA. This year, we’ve taken our commitment to innovation to new heights, embracing cutting-edge technologies and methods to bolster the support we offer to our community.
I am thrilled to announce the launch of the SVA National Academic Advising Center, (NAAC). This groundbreaking initiative is designed to guide transitioning service members, veterans, and their families in making informed decisions about using their education benefits and pursuing higher education and training.
The SVA Advising Center stands as a testament to our commitment to connecting veterans with SVA chapters earlier, fostering more successful and sustainable chapters, and creating a lasting sense of belonging for student veterans.
In addition to supporting the transition from the military to the classroom for service members, veterans, and their families, the Advising Center will also support those in our community making the transition from community and technical colleges to 4-year institutions, and from 4-year institutions to graduate programs – all while the SVA chapter and the peer support offered by our chapter leaders plays a central role to a successful transition to higher education and training.
This project, which began as a mere white paper back in 2017, is now a reality, thanks to the generous support and confidence of our friends at RTX. It’s a vivid example of how sometimes, our vision is so advanced that we need to wait for technology to catch up! Throughout this conference, you’ll have the opportunity to see the SVA Advising Center in action, interact with our experts, speak with our success coaches, and witness firsthand how this tool will revolutionize the veteran transition experience through the power of higher education.
But innovation at SVA isn’t just about technology; it’s also about the creative spirit of our chapters and chapter leaders. This past year, we’ve seen an incredible surge in creative leadership among our student veterans, who have applied the discipline, leadership, and problem-solving skills honed in their military service to make meaningful changes on their campuses.
Take, for example, the Student Veterans Organization at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Faced with the challenges of the pandemic, they reimagined engagement, maintaining their community spirit through virtual connections and adaptively shifting their approach as circumstances evolved. Their efforts have laid the foundation for a thriving on-campus environment for student veterans today.
Then there’s Kim Bullington, the Chapter Advisor at Old Dominion University. Kim’s approach to building connections goes beyond the campus, extending into community of Norfolk, Virginia and across the state.
She facilitates connections with veteran service organizations, with campus offices, with legislators, with local businesses, and more in order to ensure that the SVA chapter at ODU has what it needs to create a meaningful space for veterans.
Our commitment to innovation extends to how we connect with you, our chapter leaders, advisors, and members.
With the MySVA app, we introduced live chat, offering real-time support for any challenge your chapter might face.
This spring, we’re taking it a step further with the launch of our 24/7 call center. Now, no matter the time zone or hour, our team is just a phone call or text away, ready to assist with consultations, brainstorming sessions, and resource identification.
Your National HQ is here to help you and your chapter thrive – in addition to being accessible to you via the MySVA app and the Call Center, you are always welcome to visit your National HQ in Washington, DC.
Don’t bookmark our address just yet, though, because in the summer of this year, we’ll be moving your HQ office from our current home at 14th and K to right next door to the White House, with a rooftop balcony overlooking the south lawn and the National Mall. This is your home in the Nation’s capital, and we always have the lights on if you’d physically like to stop by Monday – Friday 9am – 5pm.
For those who prefer online resources, our website has undergone a transformation. It now features Canva templates, speech templates, and the newly redesigned SVA Chapter Guide – now more user-friendly thanks to our programs and chapter services team at HQ.
This guide is an essential resource for every chapter leader. Plus, you’ll find a wealth of information on upcoming SVA programs, research findings, engagement opportunities, and ongoing projects. And by signing up for MySVA, you gain access to all that we offer.
Supporting and empowering our chapters is the reason your Headquarters team exists.
Through innovation, we’re not just keeping pace with the changing world; we’re setting the pace, ensuring that every chapter and every student veteran has the tools and resources they need to succeed.
Understanding the Community:
Since our founding in 2008, SVA has been steadfast in its mission to deeply understand the unique experiences of student veterans. We stand at the crossroads of veteran affairs and higher education, continually evolving as subject matter experts. Our goal has always been to grasp not just the surface-level facts, but the deeper narrative of the lives, work, and academic pursuits of student veterans.
Over the past decade, the SVA Census has been a crucial tool in this mission, gathering a wealth of demographic data. At this conference, we’ll delve into the trends and insights gleaned from this data, revealing a clear picture of a community that is increasingly educated, successful, and credentialed. These findings aren’t just statistics; they are a testament to the growing impact of student veterans in various spheres.
However, understanding our community goes beyond achievements. It’s also about recognizing and addressing the challenges unique to life pre- and post-military service.
That’s why I’m thrilled to announce a new initiative: a series of in-depth studies aimed at comprehensively understanding the needs, struggles, and economic impacts faced by student veterans.
In the coming year, we’ll be reaching out with surveys that explore your basic needs, economic experiences, financial standing, and life progression as an SVA alum. This research isn’t just about gathering data; it’s about hearing your stories, understanding your journeys, and ensuring that our strategies and solutions are as effective and relevant as they can be.
Your participation in these studies is vital. By sharing your experiences, you help us ensure that our findings accurately represent the diverse tapestry of the student veteran community. Every response, every story adds depth and dimension to our understanding, enabling us to effect positive, meaningful change.
We’re not just collecting data; we’re building a foundation for informed action. With your help, we can continue to advocate for and support student veterans, military-connected students, family members, caregivers, and survivors in the most impactful ways.
Together, let’s shape a future where the needs of every member of our community are not just understood but inclusively and effectively met.
Inclusivity is more than a goal at SVA—it’s a core value that shapes our identity. For over 15 years, our dedication to fostering an environment where every student veteran, irrespective of their background, feels welcomed and supported has been unwavering.
We’ve made significant strides in ensuring that our programs and services are inclusive and accessible to all veterans, military-connected students, their families, caregivers, and survivors celebrating the diversity of gender, orientation, race, ability, and other demographics.
Yet, we recognize that the pursuit of inclusivity is an ongoing journey. We are committed to continuously learning and adapting, to listening actively to the diverse voices in our community, and to implementing the changes needed to honor and support every member.
This commitment was evident in our recent Visibility Exchange program. Launched last September with support from our dear friends at RTX, this initiative brought our HQ staff directly to SVA chapters to engage in meaningful on-campus dialogues about what true inclusivity looks like and how we can collectively create campuses that are truly veteran-inclusive.
As we continue this journey, we understand that the success of our chapters directly translates into the success of our student veterans.
And as we forge ahead, beyond our 16th year and towards our 20th anniversary, we do so not just with pride in our past achievements but with a resolute commitment to the future—a future that is inclusive, equitable, and empowering for every student veteran, military-connected student, our family members, caregivers, and survivors.
And now, as we stand at the precipice of new beginnings and continued growth, let us carry forward the spirit of service, leadership, and community that defines us.
We stand strong because of the unwavering commitment of our SVA chapter leaders, faculty, staff, and advisors, the dedication of your HQ staff, and the unwavering support of our partners and allies in fostering that community. Together, we are not just a network; we are a family bound by shared experiences and aspirations.
As we look towards the horizon, let us embrace the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead with determination and optimism.
Let us be the architects of a future where every student veteran, military-connected student, family member, caregiver, and survivor thrives in their pursuit of education, career, and personal fulfillment. This is our collective mission, and it is within our power to achieve it.
I call upon each of you to be the catalysts of change and progress in your communities. Share your stories, lend your voices, and be the guiding light for others who follow in your footsteps.
Remember, we are not just shaping individual futures; we are molding the very fabric of our society for generations to come.
Together, let’s build a legacy of success, inclusivity, and innovation. Let’s create a future that reflects the best of what we stand for, a future where each of us can say with pride, “We left it better than we found it”.
Thank you for your service; Thank you for your dedication and Thank you for your unwavering commitment. Here’s to a future replete with success, a future we forge together, step by step, chapter by chapter.
Thank you and I cannot wait to meet and engage with you all this weekend!