Courtesy of Cornell University

Student veterans get their own program house on University Avenue.

September 19, 2021

New Program House Opens, Creating Community Among Student Veterans

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In the former home of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, visitors can now find a different kind of camaraderie — a community of student veterans.

After years of advocacy from student veterans, the new Cornell Veterans House opened this fall, housing 26 undergraduate students — including 20 undergraduate student veterans, a veteran law student, an undergraduate military family member, two Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps undergraduates and two non-military students. 

Cornell is currently home to over 90 undergraduate student veterans and current service members, and more than 400 veterans work or study at the University. Residents say the building, located at 625 University Ave., has helped foster a sense of community as they adjust to both civilian and University life. This Saturday, a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrated the program house through speeches and small group tours of the building.

“This community that [student veterans] fill helps Cornell to diversify our student body,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff said. “It brings students with resilience, with maturity, with humility, with a sense of mission and with a can-do attitude.”

On Saturday morning, Roland Molina ’22, a United States Marine Corps veteran and current president of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, Kotlikoff and lecturer General George Casey, management and organizations, gave speeches at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Veterans House.

For many student veterans, the most important resource that the new house provides is time with one another. Some said they turn to one another for advice navigating University life and have found the residential community helpful for the transition to civilian life.

“The biggest resource, I think, is all the student veterans, just because we love to help each other out,” said Jessica Palominos ’22, a Marine Corps veteran. “Whenever there’s any opportunities available, or anything comes up, the other student vets let us know. That’s just how that’s how we operate.”

According to current Army reservist and CUVA vice president Mark Minton ’23, members of the Veterans House often study together, eat together and exercise together. For some residents, including Sebastian Dunbar ’23, a current active member of the U.S. Army Reserve, living in the program house has created a community and a learning experience.

“Everybody has so many different experiences. We have people from all different branches of the military,” Dunbar said. “It’s been really great to hear the stories and various perspectives of the people who live in this house.”

The new veterans program house is the result of years of student veteran advocacy. Some other advocacy successes in recent years have been the establishment of a veteran’s advocate staff position, lighting the clocktower green on Veterans Day and a University commitment to enrolling 100 undergraduate veterans. 

Many Cornell student veterans including Dunbar, Palominos and Molina are first-generation college students, citing the GI bill’s help funding college tuition for veterans as pivotal to helping them afford a college education.

While many student veterans found the transition into college challenging, some, including Minton, cite Cornell’s Veterans Summer Bridge Program as helpful in the process of learning to navigate academic resources and civilian life.

Philip Kay ’23 said he would like to see veteran-specific mental health services at Cornell. Kay, who said he wants to pursue a career in psychology research after having served in first the Israeli Army and then the United States Army, said he’s glad that Cornell has been accommodating of his PTSD service dog, Astra. However, Kay and Molina said they’d like to see Cornell hire a counselor with military-specific counseling training.

“Veterans’ mental health and mental health needs are totally different from what the general student population has,” Molina said. “We’re rising in number, and they don’t have mental health facilities to support us.”

While some student veterans say they have felt largely welcome on campus, if slightly separate from their peers, others, including Kay, reported awkward or alienating interactions with other students. Kay, who is 35 years old, said he wishes some people he has met were more familiar with the presence of older students.

“The world is changing now,” Kay said. “We’re seeing older students as undergraduates. Yes, there actually is nothing wrong with that.”

According to Molina, one future goal for veterans on campus is to create a veterans resource center. The University Assembly passed a resolution in support of this initiative that President Pollack rejected in June. The assembly has also passed resolutions calling for transparency and accountability into the University’s process for certifying enrollment with the Department of Veteran Affairs and the hiring of a military service-related CAPS counselor.

Molina said he would like to turn one room in the house into a temporary veterans resource center. Still, he said he hopes that Cornell veterans will eventually have a resource center on Central Campus — allowing for easy access to the space for undergraduate student veterans, graduate students and faculty, while creating a space for veteran students to meet with the student veteran advocate and representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While they still see room for improvement in the student veteran experience through initiatives including expanded mental health resources and a resource center, many Cornell student veterans and student veteran alumni said they are happy to see years of advocacy pay off through the creation of the veteran program house. 

Seamus Murphy ’17 — who served in the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2012 and was one of the founding members of the Cornell Undergraduate Veterans Association — said that seeing the creation of the program house is rewarding.

 “A physical space on campus is something I’ve been advocating for since I came here in 2013,” Murphy said. “To see it come to fruition is amazing.”