Nearly one year ago Army Sgt. Rodney Richardson was airborne in a C-17, awaiting his turn to jump into the roaring wind and make a rapid descent to a drop zone 4,000 feet below. Alongside his fellow paratroopers and weighed down by an Army-issue rucksack and parachute, it would be the last of 30 jumps he completed during his six years as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Now a Longwood University freshman, Richardson has traded his chute for a backpack full of textbooks and altered his course for another target: a degree in kinesiology and a career as a flight nurse.
Richardson is part of a growing population of students at Longwood comprised of veterans, servicemembers, reservists and National Guardsmen. And thanks to a number of campus-wide efforts, Longwood University is receiving national recognition as an institution quickly becoming more attractive to members of that population.
They come in, they work hard, they’re very focused and mission-oriented. They’re a resilient group of folks. I love having veterans in the class because they enrich the diversity of experiences and perspectives.Dr. John Miller, associate professor of early American literature and Veteran and Military Student Services Liaison Tweet This
Recognized in 2020 as the top-ranked Virginia university on the list of Best Colleges for Veterans by U.S. News & World Report for the first time, Longwood’s campus is evolving into one more inclusive of current and former armed services personnel. With policy changes and initiatives resulting from a sweeping, purposeful effort coordinated by Dr. John Miller, associate professor of early American literature and Veteran and Military Student Services Liaison, and executed by a number of committed faculty and staff, current and former members of the military are finding a new home at Longwood.
Those students are kinesiology majors like Richardson, Marine veteran and physics majors like Andrew Burghaus, and business administration graduates like local Farmville business owner and former Marine Jake Romaine ’14. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other students in Longwood’s classroom, and, as a whole, says Miller, they enhance the diversity and character of the Longwood community in a big way.
“They’re great students,” Miller said. “They come in, they work hard, they’re very focused and mission-oriented. They’re a resilient group of folks. I love having veterans in the class because they enrich the diversity of experiences and perspectives.”
Now in his 10th year as an English professor at Longwood, Miller has seen Longwood’s veteran outreach evolve from modest, ad hoc beginnings in 2010 to the concerted, proactive efforts taking place today. He has served that student population as the Longwood Student Veterans faculty advisor, an administrative liaison, and sometimes simply as a sounding board, helping them navigate general campus life or issues more specific to their service time.
They’re used to having a defined chain of command, for instance, but Longwood is much more decentralized. We can help them adjust to that and be successful.Dr. John Miller, associate professor of early American literature and Veteran and Military Student Services Liaison Tweet This
However, in 2018 Longwood University President W. Taylor Reveley IV and Chief of Staff Justin Pope asked Miller to examine areas where the University could further improve students’ transition from uniform to classroom, and consolidate complementary efforts already being made by many faculty and staff on campus, from Registrar Susan Hines to Director of Admissions Jason McNair-Faulk.
Two years later, those efforts have taken off and are paying dividends for a growing population of servicemen and servicewomen on campus.
“[President Reveley] wanted to be more intentional about this, about improving the experience of our veterans at Longwood,” he said. “He requested a set of recommendations for areas we could really impact and streamline the shift to student life for them.”
From that conversation came Miller’s title of Veteran and Military Student Services Liaison and his coordinating efforts that have grown into a campus-wide mission involving multiple departments. Those initiatives are widespread and sweeping, affecting many elements of a veteran’s student time on campus from admissions and registration and advising, to student affairs and their general classroom experience.
“We really want to make sure that the uniformed service these students put in is acknowledged with a quality experience at Longwood,” Miller said. “But since they are accustomed to a military culture, there may be some aspects of a college experience that are unfamiliar. They’re used to having a defined chain of command, for instance, but Longwood is much more decentralized. We can help them adjust to that and be successful.”
Other new changes are more focused on veteran and military students’ academic life. To better serve those veterans, Longwood now assesses and accepts some credits for in-person military training from their Joint Service Transcripts, allowing them to get a head start on their education. Once on campus, veterans and military students have a streamlined orientation process that presents an opportunity for them to meet each other. Policies have also been implemented to assist veterans handle absences and withdrawals from class due to deployments and military service.
But while Miller has been the catalyst for the implementation of those aforementioned policies and initiatives, he says the early successes are a consequence of the willingness of many more university personnel.
“Offices across Longwood’s campus have been awesome to work with,” he said. “The Office of the Registrar, Admissions, Student Success, the Writing Center, Student Affairs, Student Accounts, Counseling and Psychological Services– it’s been a lot of people working for the benefit of our servicemembers and now students.”
The efforts have helped students like Richardson, who enlisted in the Army in 2014 after graduating from nearby Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Virginia. Richardson served six years with the 82nd Airborne and was deployed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is now at Longwood studying kinesiology and working toward a career as a travel nurse and eventually a flight nurse.
He has already taken advantage of several of those aforementioned University policies in his first weeks as a student, earning an English credit from a course he took while enlisted, and connecting with several veterans and servicemembers already on campus. In doing so, the biggest challenges he has encountered so far are common to many first-semester college students.
“Honestly [my experience so far] has been pretty good,” said Richardson, whose service time is due to end in late September. “You have your schedule of what you need to do, and you have a time limit to knock it out. The workload has been a challenge, where you have a 4-page paper due and then all these other classes you have to do things for; whereas, in the Army, I only really had to focus on one specific thing. The bigger challenge there was more physical.”
And while the task-oriented nature of classwork has at least come naturally to him, Richardson said he has also found welcome camaraderie among fellow veteran and reservist students, of which Miller estimates there are approximately 40 on campus.
“It’s true, there is a bond [among servicemembers],” Richardson said. “You go from being around these types of people, then you’re not around them for a while. It’s fine at first, but after a while it starts to dull. You do miss it, because no matter what experience you may have had, it’s about the people. When you’re around those type of people again, you get to express a side of yourself that you can’t around others.”
With the impact of Longwood’s efforts still taking hold, and the University becoming a more competitive choice for servicemembers looking to enroll in college, Miller hopes that population will continue to grow, for the sake of veterans and Longwood both.