Student Veterans Find Home at Tech

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Veterans find a home at Tech.

Student Veterans Find Home at Tech

Scott Gilliam, picture here in Afghanistan, served in the Army before returning to Tech to finish his undergraduate degree.
Scott Gilliam (pictured here in Afghanistan) served in the Army before returning to Tech to finish his undergraduate degree.

When Scott Gilliam enrolled at Tech for the second time in 2012, he vowed it would be different from before.

“I decided I’d just keep my head down, not talk to anybody, and just get it done,” he said, referring to his pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, which initially began in 2004.

The third-year business administration major first came to Tech to study architecture straight out of high school in Marietta. After not doing as well as he’d hoped freshman year and encountering other personal challenges, Gilliam left Tech and joined the Army. He first served as a reservist before receiving orders to go to Afghanistan in 2009.

His first semester back at Tech, this time as a business major, he was sidestepping fliers on Tech Walk when he wondered to himself if there was a student organization for veterans. A quick Google search on his phone told him a group of student veterans happened to be meeting in the building right next to him in five minutes.

Since then, Gilliam’s trajectory hasn’t exactly been “head down.” He now serves as secretary for the Georgia Tech Armed Forces Student Association, a chartered student organization that formed from the initial group of veterans he met last fall. He has connected with other military vets on campus and also works as a student assistant in the Office of Emergency Preparedness, a section of the Georgia Tech Police Department.

“I wear a lot of different hats throughout the day,” he said. “I go to work, then to class, then might be talking to President Peterson at a veterans event, then I’m just taking a math quiz the next day.”

Through his various involvements, Gilliam tries to balance wanting his classmates to know why he looks older than them with not wanting to make a big deal of his situation. Though he feels he sometimes exudes an “old man tinge,” he’s happy to be back at Tech. He never thought of finishing his degree anywhere else — Tech was always home.

Members of the newly-formed Georgia Tech Armed Forces Student Association on the roof of the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons
Gilliam (far right) and fellow students in the Georgia Tech Armed Forces Student Association on the roof of the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons.

Tech is undergoing an evolution as a campus that’s not just welcoming, but nurturing, for veterans. This year, the Division of Student Affairs established a Veterans Resource Center and hired its first director, David Ross, who served 20 years in the Air Force. 

“There’s a movement in the country right now to give back to veterans,” said Ross, who came to Tech from a teaching role at Valdosta State University. Tech is included in the GI Jobs 2014 Military Friendly Schools list, but Ross intends to continue to enhance campus support for veterans, whose needs vary from those of regular students.

“Nontraditional students have a whole different outlook on why they’re going to school,” he said. He also aims to help the rest of the student body become better informed on how a veteran’s life as a student may differ from their own.

There can be a disconnect between academics and military requirements, with some veterans still on active duty lists and receiving orders while they are students. Long-term, Ross would like to see a note in class syllabi addressing veteran services, similar to what is included about disability services, to make it clear both to veterans and non-veterans what accommodations are available and why they are provided.

"Nontraditional students have a whole different outlook on why they’re going to school."

Other pockets of programs and activities supporting vets are springing up across Tech — from the classroom to the lab and beyond.

James Wilburn, who works in Professional Education at the Savannah campus, oversees a military transition program, VET2, that’s designed to help integrate veterans into a civilian working environment. The program was recently highlighted by Savannah’s local NBC affiliate, as was Wilburn for being willing to support the program out of pocket during the government shutdown.

A new work-study program is providing a scholarship for a cohort of 14 student veterans and potentially connecting them with jobs at Hewlett-Packard. The Workforce Opportunity Services program is designed for veterans who have served since Sept. 9, 2011, and provides mentoring and other training.

Jennifer Orth-Veillon, a Literature, Media, and Communication professor, put a military spin on her summer English 1101 composition class. The class examined nontraditional memoirs written by soldiers from WWI to Iraq, evaluating how they manipulated language, history, style, and image to render a true telling of their war experience. 

Student and alumni veterans gather at a monthly meeting of the Georgia Tech Military Affinity Group
Students and alumni gather at a monthly meeting of the Georgia Tech Military Affinity Group.

On the research front, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is developing a system that can measure the physical environment of an IED explosion and collect data that can help correlate what a soldier experienced with long-term medical outcomes, especially traumatic brain injury.

The Georgia Tech Military Affinity Group, GTMAG, provides a connection for alumni who are veterans, hosting events on campus and welcoming current students as well.

One challenge for providing services to veterans is identifying who they are in the first place. The Office of the Registrar manages benefits coming in for those students who elect to use them, but not all do. For the first time this year, the Georgia Tech admission application included an optional question for applicants to self-identify as veterans.

“It’s weird to think of yourself as a veteran,” Gilliam said. “I think of my grandpa as a veteran.”

"It's weird to think of yourself as a veteran. I think of my grandpa as a veteran."

Setting up veterans’ services in a way that’s accessible can also influence participation; Gilliam notes that living situations alone can make it more difficult to engage with other students. He lives on his own, farther from campus than most students, making evening group project meetings or study sessions a challenge.

Ross knows that not all students will want to associate with their military service, but the Veterans Resource Center is here to serve those who do.

“It’s amazing how much Tech has changed in a year,” Gilliam said, both as a place for veterans and as a campus overall. “Getting involved has made it feel like home again.”

Writer: Kristen Bailey