Veteran's Champions: Sam Surowitz and Seth Gordon
Student veterans have a unique set of challenges. It can be frustrating for them to interact with an organization or people who don’t understand their needs and military experiences. Seth Gordon and Sam Surowitz get this. Gordon is the Director of Veteran and Military Center at Wright State University and Surowitz is an Army veteran and the Director of Military and Veteran Programs and Services at the University of Dayton. Both men created centers at their universities that connect student veterans with the resources, services, and support they need to study and graduate.
Sam Surowitz: I went into the Army right out of high school. I experienced 9/11 living in New Jersey as someone whose father worked down the street from the World Trade Center. So, I knew that I wanted to serve as a direct relationship to that event. My first exposure to higher ed was when I had a Squad Leader suggest that I use military tuition assistance to take some online classes while I was in and then went from there to finish my degree at a university. I got a job working at a university while working on a master's degree. At that time, I was highly involved with different things as a student veteran and at that point I knew this is what I want to do. I really enjoyed being part of student life as a student. I really enjoyed working in the organization and that's when I found a University of Dayton was looking to create a center and one that actually didn't exist yet, so was an inaugural director position. So, I applied for it and interviewed for it. Anyway, that's been my experience. That’s how I got in. I've had good leadership in the military and I've always wanted to give that same type of leadership to others. I could throw it kind of army definition of leadership: providing purpose, motivation and direction while influencing and operating to improve the organization.
Seth Gordon: Yeah, that sounds like something out of a handbook. So, it's interesting because I'm also the inaugural director at Wright State. The story is that Wright State had about 200 veterans until 2006, and then with post 9/11 G.I. Bill, that number increased by 250%. So, you go from 200 to 750 and we crested in 2018 at about 950. So, you see this huge growth and you have a lot of veterans going in to get their benefits and saying, “Where are the other veterans? I want more. I want more than an old love seat and a computer.” Right?
Sam Surowitz: Sure. Well, in the last two years, we changed Military Veteran Programs and Services from just Veteran Services being an additional duty placed on several financial aid advisers to a coordinated, consolidated office that is now co-located with the Student Success Center, where we have a kitchenette, a number of computer stations, a small lounge area that's co-located with the staff offices. We now work with the student success team, where if any of our military and veteran affiliated students are flagged academically, if they get a certain number of academic flags like low test scores or failure to turn in assignments. After a certain number of flags, they automatically come up on our radar, and that's before they're at a point where they're necessarily going to fail classes so we can do early intervention. We have representation on the Behavioral Intervention Team. So, if someone has experienced some type of mental health crisis and that person is military veteran affiliated, we actually get called in as being part of the team that would help that student succeed and get out of such a crisis.
Seth Gordon: Our vision for our center is to help veteran and military connected students feel like they belong at Wright State. Which means when they walk on campus, they don't feel that invisible thing. We've done things to make it feel like they're wanted there. There are emblems outside the space. There are emblems inside the space. They walk in, they see things that tell them, “Oh, you want me here.” It sounds silly, but I think one of the most important things we've spent money on is T-shirts. We hit on a design that people really like, and they wear the T-shirt, Sam sees another person wearing that T-shirt, he realizes that person got that T-shirt because they walked into the veteran’s center. There's another veteran. Oh, there's another one. Oh, I'm not the only one. I feel like I belong here. Done, right? That's the point. How do you take that student and help them transition and have a successful experience? You know, now their mission is to get their degree.
Veterans Voices is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices by Will Davis and Tony Holloway, with support from Seth Gordon Ph.D. at the Wright State Veteran and Military Center. Financial support comes from Wright-Patt Credit Union.