November 11, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Veterans at Cornell: A Slow but Steady Rise

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Cornell Veterans through the past couple years

A warm and wet breeze glides across my face as I unpack my car Aug. 16, 2016. Students and parents rushing about, asking for directions, and just like me, unpacking their cars. It’s O-week and I feel like Billy Madison watching all these innocent, younger wide-eyed adults scatter around like lost puppies looking for their dorm rooms. I remember writing the housing office expressing specifically that I’d like my own room, because I’m a 25-year-old combat veteran who has gone through experiences that most Cornell students couldn’t imagine or relate to.

Rose House has one room per suite that fits two; I was lucky enough to be put in this one. Why you might ask? Well, unlike Columbia University, Cornell doesn’t have a clue how to deal with veterans.

After unpacking my stuff and meeting my roommate, who had no clue he was going to be roomed with a combat veteran, I checked my email. Sifting through the barrage of messages, I stumbled upon this: “Veteran Dinner.” Little did I know that this dinner would introduce me to some of my best friends.

At the dinner, I met veterans just like me. They were hungry for experience, intellectualism, friendship, and success: I found my peers, and it’s all because two veterans who came before me thought, “wouldn’t it be nice for veterans to connect on campus?”

From here on out, my college experience dramatically enhanced. I gained a network of colleagues eager to hang out, party, study, hike, travel and fraternize with. In fact, about 10 of us went to Cuba over Winter Break 2016.

Connecting with this small group of veterans allowed me to feel welcomed at Cornell, but let me make this very clear: this is not Cornell’s doing. This is her students’.

The cofounders of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association, Seamus Murphy ’17 and David Outlaw, Jr. ’17, fought hard to give Veterans on campus a community, and while it may be a small community, it’s a step in the right direction. Here’s how they got us here.

Seamus Murphy

In an 2014 article written by Slope Magazine, Murphy claimed that Cornell did not offer enough support to Undergraduate Veterans. He expressed his desire to start an organization for undergraduate veterans because at the time, there was substantially less support for veterans, if any at all.

He mentioned his difficulties with attempting to start a veteran organization. Slope Magazine claimed that there were 50 veterans attending undergraduate programs at Cornell when in reality, the university was counting officers’ children, and basically anyone who used the GI Bill. This was an entirely inaccurate representation of veterans attending Cornell. Really, there were less than 20.

Murphy said, “The school has compiled how many people are veterans, but because of privacy issues, they can’t give out those email addresses, even to a faculty member,” and “it wouldn’t exactly be worth it for me to do chalkings or go to Ho Plaza with quarter cards.”

So how would it be possible for Murphy to start an organization of veterans. How would he be able to sift through a population of 14,000 students and get veterans on board?

Think about a typical club at Cornell. There might be 1000 students here that identify as Democratic, and yet the club only garners the attention of about 100. There might be 300 students in a single major and yet those that are in the major’s affiliated clubs might be just a couple percent. So now imagine trying to create a club with a base population of 20 out 14,000.

Then Murphy met Outlaw.

David Outlaw

“When I applied, I didn’t think acceptance from Cornell was attainable because there was very little information about veterans on Cornell websites. There was some information about the Yellow Ribbon Program, which supplements the Post-9/11 GI bill to fully fund a veteran’s tuition, but there was no information about an undergraduate veteran community.” He was right; it didn’t exist. What he felt virtually, he felt physically upon arrival. “Cornell had no support structure for us [veterans], which shocked me because I was accustomed to a plethora of resources in the military.” Outlaw said he felt lost and alone.

Eventually he was connected with Cornell faculty member, Emily Franco ’92, who invited Outlaw to a meeting at the Big Red Barn with the Johnson Graduate School Association of Veterans. There, Outlaw met Murphy. They connected and bonded over their frustrations with Cornell’s lack of support for veterans on campus.

Murphy and Outlaw had subsequent meetings that led them to form the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association. “We started outlining our immediate challenges, the group’s mission, and our strategy to build relationships and awareness.”

This exact meeting would lead to a front-page article in The Sun that conveyed their frustrations with the office of financial aid and the university registrar’s office.

“This article really put us on the map.” Outlaw said.

After this article, some administrators at Cornell immediately begin reaching out to Outlaw and Murphy. They eventually met with Barbara Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, in Day Hall. At this meeting, they realized that the administration wanted to help but didn’t have any idea what veterans were going through. Cornell clearly had no recruitment strategy for veterans, so Murphy and Outlaw started building relationships with alumni and faculty to get those strategies started. These relationships continue to help build knowledge and community for the small veterans community in the undergraduate programs.

Moving Forward

Cornell has a long road ahead with respect to its veterans. We have a presence on campus but it’s small and lacking support, and while we’ve been promised 100 veterans by 2020, we understand that the university faces many challenges attracting the brightest and best veterans to its affiliated schools. So do we. If we don’t have a thriving veteran population, why would veterans desire to come here in the first place?

What we’re building is more than a club or an association; it’s a network for veterans. If 100 veterans graduate from Cornell a year, the amount of support future graduates will receive will be astonishing! As it is, the network is small and will remain small unless we continue to advocate for more veterans on Cornell’s campus.

Intentionally or unintentionally, Cornell is outsourcing its responsibility of taking care of student Veterans to Cornell alumni and CUVA. Attracting veterans is arguably a difficult task. We’re only 8 percent of the U.S. population, however, if they can get students from across the globe, they can most definitely attract students in their backyard.

Happy Veterans Day.


Johnathan T. Gilmore ’18 is the communications director for Cornell Undergraduate Veterans’ Association. He is a United States Marine Corps Veteran. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.