Between faculty, staff and full-time and part-time students, retired Lt. Col. Mark Ridley estimates there are more than 500 military veterans at Columbus State University.
It’s a big group to reach, said Ridley, director of Military Affairs at CSU, but that’s the goal of the new club Student Veterans of America.
The organization, a local chapter of a national association, was founded at CSU Nov. 11, Veterans Day. The club had its first meeting Jan. 25.
“When we were standing up the Military Affairs Office (last semester), we realized we didn’t have any student organizations that just catered to the military,” Ridley said, “where veterans can say, ‘When I go to that organization meeting, I’ve got someone who can relate to me.’”
Membership is open to current and former service members of all branches — “basically anybody who’s raised their right hand and sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States” — and their family members, said Sgt. 1st Class Donald Bolz, club president and the battalion commander for the university’s ROTC.
“What we’re trying to do is set up a program where the veterans have a resource comprised of their own (peers),” Bolz said.
The club can help make sense of military financial aid and accreditation, provide a network of support for veterans and let members know about important events like job fairs, he said.
Bolz said he remembers arriving on campus in the fall of 2009 to begin his third year of college as part of the Army Green to Gold program. There was a stark contrast compared with what he knew as an NCO, he said.
“College life is very decentralized whereas military is very structured,” said Bolz, who’s been in the Army for 11 years, “so it’s a little bit awkward. Plus, things are so spread out. It’s just a different life really. It felt like a totally different world.”
Bolz will graduate May 9, but said he wished he had Student Veterans of America there when he started.
“We all have something in common, regardless of who we serve with or what branch,” he said. “There’s just that common understanding of duty, discipline. It’s all just part of who you are.”
The club currently includes several student veterans, an Army spouse, a retired Navy officer who teaches political science and a former Airman who teaches English, but Bolz said he wants to see it draw in more students.
“I just hope that the organization can continue to grow to a size that does the Soldiers justice on campus,” he said. “I want it to grow to the point where the service members, veterans and their family members have that resource at their fingertips. There’s no cost for membership. It’s just a benefit for them.”
Bolz said future plans for the club include volunteering with House of Heroes, partnering with offices on campus to increase understanding of military affairs and offering a mentorship program for incoming students.
Through the national association, students can also apply for scholarships, Ridley said.
“My vision for the future of the club is to be a 500-member organization,” he said. “We would be the largest student organization on campus, and at that point we as veterans and CSU would realize what potential we bring. We are the role models for our community. We set the example. We provide service back to our community. It’s win-win. We can get there; it’s just going to take some work.”