Watch the 2022 State of SVA
This speech was delivered on January 6, 2022 at SVA’s 14th Annual National Conference in Orlando, Fla.
Welcome! I have to tell you that it feels absolutely amazing to be here in person. Our National Conference for me, and I hope for many of you, is my fuel to get out and do more for our community. Most of my year, as your National President and CEO, is normally spent traveling the country speaking with chapters or working from our National Headquarters in Washington, DC. I love my job. I love the work. I love serving you. But at NatCon, I actually get to meet you! I feel your energy, hear about your dreams and aspirations, and let that energy fill me up so that I can attack the year with the exuberance it deserves.
The people in this room inspire me. I’m so proud to represent you, and so happy to see you all sitting here today, having overcome the last two challenging years to continue to drive forward to make the world a better place.
With that in mind, thank you so much to the amazing team at Disney. Disney is such a phenomenal partner who goes the extra mile to make us feel special. Their passion for veteran success is boundless. And of course, none of this would be possible without our presenting sponsor, Raytheon Technologies. And thanks to our first general session sponsor, Comcast NBCUniversal. Every time we come up with a new way to help student veterans—a new way to be more effective and give back more to our cohort of student veteran leaders, the partners that you see here like Raytheon Technologies, Disney, and Comcast NBCUniversal are always first in line to ask, “How can we help?” I look forward to continuing to improve the lives of student veterans and military connected students with all of our partners for years to come. And, I’d like to extend a special thanks to all of our partners for believing in our mission. I cannot thank you enough for your generosity.
Before we start, I’d like for all of us to pause for a moment of silence, so that we might recognize those who have lost someone to COVID-19.
I’d also like to acknowledge all of you who have struggled over the past two years balancing jobs, your relationships, parenthood, and your education during this pandemic. I am a student veteran – my journey in higher education began at Brevard Community College in Melbourne, FL a few months after separating from active duty in the Navy. I worked full-time at Northrup and took classes at night. I eventually became a transfer junior at Florida State University, where I first became involved with SVA – first, by being “volun-told” to become our chapter Vice President and later, becoming elected as Chapter President at FSU. I would later earn a master’s degree at Syracuse University while working full-time at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. And today, I stand before you as a full-time student veteran again, pursuing my PhD at Syracuse University – while working full-time at SVA and raising a little boy with my beautiful wife. Life is never easy, but it has been especially daunting to be a college student during this challenging time. We’re in this together, and we will all be stronger for having weathered this storm together.
Our theme this year is SVA Has S.O.U.L. Naturally, we couldn’t just leave it at that. In our community, everything needs an acronym. Look, I don’t make the rules. I just follow them.
SOUL stands for:
Service is the foundation of every person in this room. You are student veterans because at one point in your life you decided you wanted to serve our Nation. I will tell you, your life will be better if you never let that go. Let your service continue by helping your fellow veterans, your neighbors, and your country. Keep doing the right thing.
Opportunity. They say that success occurs when opportunity meets preparedness. You have been preparing all year, in your classrooms, in your study groups, and in your SVA chapters. You’ll find that opportunity is everywhere in SVA. Some of you have incredible ideas for businesses. Some of you will open doors for each other. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a whole lot of incredible companies, veteran organizations and schools here with us this weekend that are dying to talk to you about the opportunities they provide. It’s there for the taking for you and your fellow chapter members. Believe in yourselves and get after it! But also, when you find that success, don’t forget to provide some opportunity for those that follow you. No one does it alone.
Unity. We come from different worlds. – Now, sound off in any way you fell most appropriate and with who you identify most strongly with, but where’s my Army folks at? Air Force? Navy? Marines? Coast Guard? Space Force?
We all served in our own parts of the military with our own challenges. But we are working together toward one goal. One Team. One Fight. You cannot lose that now. It’s very easy to fall prey to the idea that now that you are civilians, you have to go it alone. Don’t.
Lean on each other. Support each other. You’d never dream of leaving someone behind in the military. Do you feel any differently now?
Of course not. So keep working together as one team and you all will accomplish more than you ever could by yourselves. That has been the truth of my life.
Leadership. It might not feel like it right now because we’re all in transition. We’re moving from one world to the next and you’re trying to get the most out of school at the same time, but I assure you, each and every one of you are leaders. What’s more, you’re the leaders our country needs right now. The people in this room will start more successful businesses than any other cohort in America. You will earn higher GPAs. You are more likely to volunteer in your community. You will achieve higher paying careers in nearly every sector in America. In fact, student veterans outperform every other population in just about every measurable statistic attributed to success we can find. So embrace it. You led in the military. Don’t be bashful about leading now. We need you.
So think about S.O.U.L. this week.
I’m excited! And I hope you’re excited, too. NatCon is important. It’s especially important for first-time attendees, which this year make up 74% of this room. Take advantage of it!
NatCon is an amazing opportunity to connect with student veterans, family members, advocates, allies, and thought leaders in our community, as well as their champions in higher education. The people you will meet here are doing amazing things! Learn from them, and let them learn from you.
You’ll have the chance to learn how to improve your own SVA chapters through breakout sessions on campus engagement and chapter management.
And lastly, this is a chance to network with fellow chapter leaders to learn from each other, you can network with some amazing companies and executives, and maybe even land an internship, perhaps a job while you are a student, or even a job after graduation. So please, make the most of this experience!
This past year we have spent a great deal of effort expanding our Programs and Services, so that we are better equipped than ever to serve you! As part of that commitment, we respond to any question or concern asked of your HQ team in 24 hours or less.
We’ve also launched our own Discord channel. Discord, for those of you not in the gaming community, is an instant messaging platform that allows you quick access to SVA members and chapter leaders, so we can increase communication and networking across the board.
With so much of our world operating in virtual or hybrid settings these last two years, SVA has invested in building the infrastructure necessary for our Leadership Continuum to thrive. We revamped and digitized the curriculum for our annual Regional Summits that train chapter leaders on the tools, techniques, and tactics to manage a successful and sustainable student organization.
Even when Regional Summits return to in-person instruction, we will now have the ability to continue to reach more chapters online.
We also graduated two incredible new classes of SVA Leadership Fellows and VFW-SVA Legislative Fellows during this time and continued to hold our annual Washington Week where we deliver SVA’s top policy policies to members of Congress every year.
No matter what the world has thrown at us, SVA has answered the call.
And despite these challenges, we’ve still managed to host some tremendous events this year. Like last fall, when former Miss USA and Army veteran Deshauna Barber, the CEO of Service Women’s Action Network, hosted our Women Chapter Leaders’ Summit. Or just last month when we hosted an Instagram Live with the phenomenal folks at Merging Vets and Players. They’ll be hosting a pop-up workout and discussion Saturday morning by the way, so make sure you sign up! Also, don’t tell anyone I told you, but rumor has it that a very special member of the MVP team will be making an appearance this week. I cannot tell you who it is, but I am allowed to tell you it rhymes with “Bate Noyer.”
I’m especially proud of the commitments we have made to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Last September we announced our partnership with Rutgers University Center for Minority Serving Institutions, which is the first of its kind in the nation. You can learn more about this on “SVA Mondays”, where every Monday on our social media accounts and our podcast with the Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions. This relationship is critical because it allows us to research and collect more data and voices to share with our Government Affairs team, which in turn can work with Congress to build better policy for all veterans.
Today, I’m thrilled to share how we’re taking our commitment to the next level with help from our partner Raytheon Technologies.
This year, our brand new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative will formalize and amplify our outreach to, and support for, Minority Serving Institutions, specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs.
I’m also pleased to announce that SVA will host a Student Veteran Inclusion and Representation Summit this summer to help shift the national conversation from mere tolerance and acknowledgement to a feeling of belonging and investment in America’s underrepresented student veterans. Here, SVA will convene higher education, nonprofit, corporate, and other partners to ensure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color student veterans reach their potential on campuses, in communities, and in workplaces across the country.
Finally, we will create a fellowship at SVA’s National Headquarters in Washington, DC responsible for providing and growing expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion. This Fellow will construct and lead our Racial Justice Task Force, focused on representation of minorities in SVA’s national programs, events and chapters, on Capitol Hill, in academic research, and on college campuses nationwide.
The most exciting part of these announcements is that these innovations are not happening at some far off, nebulous time. They’re happening now, made possible by the incredibly generous ongoing support from Raytheon Technologies, who has agreed to fully fund our diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
Just as SVA is committed to ensuring that student veterans are represented in higher education and in the workforce, we are equally committed to ensuring that every group inside the veteran community has equal access to success. Better representation for today’s student veterans means we all benefit.
The pandemic also inspired us to improve our communications. Losing day-to-day contact exposed us to some of the areas we needed to work on, and we did!
The SVA website now offers more resources than ever before. The SVA Career Center is full of information about what it’s like to work for our partner companies, as well as many other organizations. And thanks to our good friends at the National Association of State Workforce Agencies and DirectEmployers Association via their National Labor Exchange, the SVA Career Center on our website now, currently lists over 4 million unique job opportunities and they update live every day.
The updated SVA website studentveterans.org also hosts tremendous information about how to manage and lead your chapter. Our Chapter Guide and videos help you solve any problem under the sun, whether you’re looking for the best practices to lead a chapter, scale a chapter, or even revive a chapter that has fallen on hard times or disappeared entirely. We want you to succeed. We know every campus is different and has different challenges. If the answer isn’t in our chapter guide, reach out to your headquarters staff in Washington, DC and we’ll get it for you!
Your Government Affairs team has been working around the clock, relentlessly over the past two years. This is the team that made sure that your GI Bill continued when everything went virtual in early 2020, and your Government Affairs team continues to fight for you. Moreover, they have worked to ensure your voice is heard on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
Our policy submission portal on the SVA website, ensures that you can reach out to us with ideas for any policy initiatives you have that will improve the lives of student veterans and our family members. Nearly all of our policy work starts directly with you. In fact, there’s even a breakout session this weekend for you to interact directly with our Government Affairs Team and other policy experts to make sure your voice is heard by those that advocate on your behalf. Chapter leaders, VFW-SVA Legislative Fellows, and contributing student veterans continue to set the stage for the critical tasks we need to get done on Capitol Hill.
An important example of this connection came about during the Afghanistan crisis. Many of you sitting here today have a personal connection to Afghanistan. Many of you did everything you could to help during the withdrawal in August, whether it was communicating with your former interpreters on Whatsapp, or consolidating lists to pass on to the troops on the ground or, for a handful of you, even going there as civilians.
During the General Session on Saturday afternoon, at your request, we have a panel discussing that issue. We are also continuing to work with our partners to ensure SVA chapters can help the Afghans who fought alongside us and their families who now find themselves in the U.S. They are part of our community, and we take care of our own.
We are listening! But we don’t know if you don’t tell us, so please, get involved. We want you to be inspired and empowered to make a difference. SVA belongs to you.
But it’s not enough to build programs and advocate for change. As believers in higher education and the scientific method, we want more data. We constantly research our community, our challenges, and our programs and report our findings. When we find root causes, we work to solve them. When we find program success, we report our results to you, to other veteran service organizations, and to Congress. They trust us to tell them what actually makes a difference in the life of veterans. So, when you see requests from us in the form of an annual census or a survey, please fill it out. Your feedback is critical and directly informs our work. Our policy may be the conduit to the legislature, but you are the source.
Which brings me to 2022. We have a lot coming up!
Washington Week is next up this Spring. We look forward to introducing SVA chapter members to the legislative process as we announce our policy and advocacy priorities for the year. It’s important that the future leaders of SVA—the people in this room—understand that Congress isn’t some far off place. It’s a group of people who are right down the road from your National headquarters in Washington, DC looking for the right information so they can craft the right policies to help our veterans. You can affect that change, and Washington Week gives you the opportunity to do exactly that.
The Leadership Institute, our premier student leadership program, is planned to be back in person this fall. The Leadership Institute is a tremendous opportunity to improve your leadership skills and immerse yourself into a group of dedicated SVA Leadership Fellows, all looking to make a difference. I highly recommend applying. You can learn more at the SVA booth at the SVA Campus.
We are also hosting 6 Regional Summits in 6 different U.S. cities this summer. Regional Summits will be offered both in-person and virtual, to ensure that everyone can benefit from them.
We’re also launching a brand new online portal this year which will streamline the chapter experience by providing a place where chapter leaders can login, register for events, update your contact and chapter information, or even apply for scholarships, all in one convenient place. In fact, some of you in this room will be the very first chapter leaders to see it live this weekend.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with students many times over the years, as well as presiding over six SVA National Conferences as your national president and CEO. NatCon is always special, but this one feels different. This one feels like a victory and a rebirth all tied into one. This pandemic has been hard on everyone and there is no mistaking that, but in hard times, it’s always best to look for the helpers, and I have watched this community do everything it can for each other, for other veterans, and for our country. Those of you in the Guard or the Reserves have deployed to test facilities to help the afflicted. Those of you in careers have reached out to other veterans and helped them navigate the job search. Those of you in school have supported and fought for each other. And many of you have been involved in saving the lives of those Afghans that served alongside so many of us. You’ve embraced this challenge with a stiff upper lip and have shown once again why it is so very easy to serve you. Because when many were asking, “How do I take care of myself during these troubled times?” you were asking, “How do I help others?”
And while I know the reality of COVID-19 has not left us entirely, here we are, together again safely, asking for the next challenge.
It is my honor to speak to you, to be among you, and to call you my sisters and brothers in arms. Thank you for being a profound inspiration in my life.
Now, take care of each other this weekend, bring all of this knowledge back to make your campus better, hydrate, and please join us as we officially open the SVA Campus!