Student Veteran House

Michael Thompson knows what it is like to feel out of place.
Seven years ago, he was a disabled veteran struggling to fit into a college life that had moved on while he was in Iraq. He faced new technology, more online learning, younger student peers, and he missed the camaraderie he’d developed with buddies in Iraq.

Thompson, 31, stuck with it and is now pursuing a master’s degree in business. Many other disabled veterans either don’t pursue college or struggle once they do, and he wants to help.

So do we. Thompson is lobbying campus administrators to build “Student Veteran Houses” on U.S. campuses, and we’re working with him on the design of a prototype.

The goal is to provide housing designed for disabled vets and to provide a “rally” point on campus for other vets, too.

“Veterans, especially disabled veterans, probably have an idea of what a college student is and they don’t see themselves that way,” Michael says. “To succeed, they need more than a quick orientation and money from the GI Bill.”

We think Student Veteran House will be the first national project that addresses both the social and academic needs of veterans along with housing.

I’ve gone with Michael to present the concept to several universities, and we expect to address several campus conferences this summer, too.

Veterans need something to help them transition. One day they’re in the Army or Navy and they get injured and the next they’re wondering what to do with the rest of their life. We can create spaces that will have a big impact on this student population.

Designed to build community

While every university or college may put their own spin on Student Veteran House, we have core ideas. The houses will foster serious study and help vets achieve academic excellence. They’ll have amenities to deal with physical disabilities, but they’ll also feel like homes.

Designs are underway for multi-story structures with spiral walkways so vets in wheelchairs take the same path as those who walk. Wide corridors and well lit rooms will provide spaces that draw students to mingle. Small group study rooms will provide needed technology.

Many vets have sleep disorders. Special lighting systems may help mitigate issues. Each house will have about 30 rooms with balconies and bathrooms. Bathrooms are perhaps the most vulnerable place for a disabled veteran, especially one with a prosthetic, so privacy is important. Balconies offer access to the outside. There will also be spaces for dogs.

The houses will welcome other vets to access community resources such as tutors, counselors or VA services.

“We want them to offer holistic support,” Michael says.

A chicken and egg dilemma

Almost 52 percent of veterans who pursue a postsecondary credential earn one within ten years, indicates a study released last year by Student Veterans of America.

The study looked at 788,915 former military service members. That completion rate slightly lags that of the general student population but veterans take longer to earn credentials.

The postsecondary success of disabled veterans is harder to quantify.

The U.S. Department of Defense says that, as of early 2014, approximately 51,000 service members had been wounded during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Enduring Freedom.

That indicates that a substantial portion of today’s veterans may be enrolling in higher education with minor to severe disabilities, such as loss of limb, severe burns or traumatic brain injury, the SVA study said.

Whether visible or invisible, the injuries “will likely impact all facets of a veteran’s post-service life, including their academics,” the SVA study stated.  Vets may miss more classes due to pain or have trouble concentrating, taking notes and remaining alert.

No one can predict how many more disabled veterans might pursue postsecondary degrees if they had more support. We, and Michael, are convinced that schools can recruit and retain more student veterans with Student Veteran Houses.

Michael formed Student Veteran House as a nonprofit. Hard core fundraising has yet to commence. We’re hoping to get a university or college committed to adding Student Veteran House to their campus. Then, donors would likely feel more comfortable about donating. However, the institutions would probably like to see donor support before they commit.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” Michael says.

Many college administrators like the idea of Student Veteran House, but they also don’t think they have a large disabled vet population.

Michael counters that Student Veteran Houses will attract applicants, who get GI funding that colleges and universities can depend on.

What’s more, doing more to help disabled vets succeed in college “is the right thing to do,” Michael says.

Fulfilling the vision of Student Veteran House has become Michael’s passion, and also that of his new wife, Ashley.

Before enrolling in the military, Michael earned his Eagle Scout in his native California. As a 6’5” athlete, he walked on to become a Sun Devil football player at Arizona State University, the alma mater of one of his heroes, Pat Tillman. After a stint with World Wrestling Entertainment, Thompson was inspired to serve his country. He shipped out to bootcamp in 2009 and was injured in a high-speed boat accident that year and also the next year while in Iraq.

Now, he’s inspired to serve his fellow vets, and he’s juggling the demands of that along with school and other commitments.

“It’s just part of the warrior mindset,” he says. “Your mind tells you that this is just what you’ve got to get done.” We have every confidence that he will, and we’re excited to be part of it.

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