by Barrett Seaman –
With the presentation of the colors by a Marine Corps honor guard and a singing of The Star Spangled Banner (twice), Mercy College opened a Veterans Center on its Dobbs Ferry campus, designed to provide a resource and a haven for some 150 former soldiers, sailors and air force veterans currently enrolled there.
The new center, located on the lower level of Mercy’s Main Hall, has computer terminals, a printer, six oversized lounge chairs facing a 55” flat screen TV and a mini-kitchen. The Center, made possible in part by a $25,000 grant from TD Bank, is modeled on a similar Veterans Center at Mercy’s Bronx campus. Altogether, according to Mercy President Tim Hall, 280 vets are registered as students at the college.
In the past decade, over one million veterans have returned home seeking higher education. Of the many needs they face, education is among the most common. Adjustment to campus life is not always easy though. Most returning vets aren’t like your average undergrad, in that they’re older, and they may bring with them physical and psychological wounds that prevent them from joining in the normal student lifestyle. But they also tend to be more focused and may be less inclined to join in the sometimes-frenetic social scene than traditional student.
Army vet Ronald Melendez, president of the Veterans of Mercy, said that Mercy vets’ GPAs run from 3.5 to 4.0 and that a program they launched for themselves called Operation Buddy-Up matches high achievers with those whose grades fall below 3.5 to provide study tips and encouragement. “We keep ourselves academically accountable to ourselves,” said Melendez.
The Center will also provide a haven for vets with war-related disabilities—a place where they don’t feel the need to explain their injuries. One Mercy vet saw it as a place where no one asked about the extensive scarring on his neck. Another, whose trauma left him with a speech impediment, found that the Bronx campus center was one place where he found that he could speak without stuttering.
Former Marine Corporal Viviana DeCohen, who was instrumental in forming the original Bronx campus campus vets center, said that a common feeling among other vet/students was “a need to find a quiet place to study.” She got together with six other vets and produced a video about their experiences and submitted it to a competition held by the Student Veterans of America in Washington. The film won a $10,000 first prize, which provided seed money for their own space on campus.
When DeCohen, widely called Mama V., came to the Dobbs Ferry campus as a counselor after her own graduation, she immediately started looking for other vets. Together they started Operation Buddy-Up, issued wristbands so they could easily identify other vets and started pushing for their own center.
Building on the success of the Buddy-Up program, the group has launched Operation Push-Up, which encourages vets to take the next step to graduate school. Fourteen Mercy vets have already gone through one graduate program or another and another 18 are currently enrolled in programs ranging from MBA to Physician’s Assistant Masters degrees. Three are now studying at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Says vet DeCohen: “We want to help them make the transition from killer to scholar.”