• Omar Rutledge

2021 in Review: Part Four


Red Sox Game at Fenway

Well, we’ve finally made it. This is the final post of the “2021 in Review” series which covers the Fall Semester of my fourth year in my PhD program. I ended my last post stating that I had no idea what I was about to get into as I entered this semester. Unlike the Fall Semester of my third year which had challenges associated with the pandemic and my academic milestones, this Fall was more centered around my new role as the President of the MIT Student Veterans Association. It’s a bit of a read, the longest in the series, but I hope it’s interesting. Let’s dig in and review some of the exciting things that happened this semester.


Fall Semester – Sept – Dec 2021

After taking a break from MIT during the summer and finally getting my shoulder fixed at the end of August, I started the month of September feeling ready for a new adventure. While I still had my academic obligations, what gave me the most inspiration to come to MIT everyday was leading the Student Veterans Association (SVA). The pandemic had finally died down to a level where MIT felt comfortable lifting many of their restrictions on in-person events. After spending more than a year tucked away in remote meetings, the group was finally going to have in-person meetings and have access to our group’s lounge. There was a new sense of hope and excitement at the start of the Fall Semester.


One of my main goals with the SVA was to grow the membership to eventually include all student veterans on campus. At the beginning of September, we had only 10 members. I knew we had more veterans at MIT, although upon inquiry to the Office of the Registrar, MIT didn’t actually have an accurate count of the number of veterans on campus due to a technical systems error. This was one of the first of many issues we identified as an organization which needed to be addressed by the administration. To recruit, we decided to participate in “Midway” the week before the semester started, which is MIT’s version of rush week for undergraduates, and the Graduate Student Resource Fair to reach incoming graduate veterans. At both, I reserved a table for our group and set up as much military gear as I could carry with one arm since I was still healing from my shoulder surgery. It was a great feeling to finally be around so many other humans at one time! Even with masks, it felt like we were returning to some degree of normalcy. I was able to reach a few new student veterans and service members at these recruitment events and found some of our veteran faculty and staff. We were beginning to get the word out about our group.


Recruiting at Midway

The semester officially began after Labor Day, and we kicked it off with our first event, the SVA Welcome Back Dinner. In partnership with the Office of the First Year, we held a small gathering at a local restaurant and paid for everyone’s food. As our very first event of the year, we had the greatest turnout ever for our group with over 30 participants! I was very happy to finally bring our veteran community together in-person. To add to the excitement, we applied for and received some funding from the Office of Graduate Education and the Graduate Student Council to open our Student Veteran Lounge and begin holding regular events there for our members. We also partnered up with the Sloan Veterans Club, a group of veterans in the Sloan Business School, to host the 9/11 Run to Remember, a 9.11k run around the Charles River and had another great turnout. Within the first few weeks of the semester, the MIT SVA was really starting to gain momentum. With our lounge officially opening the following week, our veterans finally had a gathering place again.


In addition to gaining the attention of the veteran population to build a sense of community, another goal of mine was to raise awareness about veterans to the civilians at MIT, both at the highest levels of the administration and with the general student population. This fell in line with my mission statement: to build community among veterans through holding events, to advocate for veterans and service members to the MIT administration, and to disseminate helpful information to our members and supporters. I didn’t realize when I made the mission statement that it would become a really powerful tool in establishing meaning and purpose for our group, but in these early days, I relied heavily on my experience as a CEO of a tech startup (that failed, of course – It’s a good story, perhaps a possible blog entry someday), and as an Infantry Sergeant. Establishing a mission felt like the right thing to do in the beginning, but I would later learn it was absolutely necessary to be successful.


Our group chose to gain additional legitimacy by affiliating ourselves with the national Student Veterans of America, a non-profit organization gear to uniting student veterans across the country and equipping groups with information and resources to deliver effective services to all student veterans. We became an official SVA Chapter over the summer. I know, it’s a little confusing between the acronyms, our Student Veterans Association, and their Student Veterans of America, but we just refer to them as the “national SVA” to keep it simple.


Our association with them started to pay off almost immediately. They partnered up with Raytheon to sponsor any of our members for the annual Run to Home Base, a fundraiser for Home Base, a program that helps veterans and their families deal with the invisible wounds of war. This was wonderful because running required a $400 minimum amount to participate. Through the national SVA, 12 people affiliated with our group raised a collective $4,800 for Home Base. It was such an amazing day to run from Fenway Park to MIT and back again to finish across the home plate, and for such a great cause. After the run, the national SVA also secured a skybox at Fenway for the Red Sox game later that afternoon and offered two tickets to all of the local chapter leaders, including Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, and now us, MIT. For my first baseball game, I was quite spoiled in the skybox! It allowed us leaders to come together and talk about possible ways to collaborate in the future. It was a full day, but one of the best I’ve had in Boston, and all thanks to the national SVA.


The Start of the 9/11 Run to Remember

Back on campus, we started holding monthly membership meetings in our new lounge (M3 for short). The goal was to create a space to bring veterans together on a regular basis and to keep everyone informed of what we are doing as a group. With all of the great things that were happening within our first month of the semester, the first M3 was a hit. I’m sure the free pizza also helped. We were growing our membership and building a sense of community among veterans. Reflecting on where we were just a few months before, the MIT SVA was really taking shape in a great new way. It was my hope to bring that same level of success to the biggest event we’ve ever planned, the MIT Veterans Day Celebration.


Before the pandemic, MIT celebrated Veterans Day in a bit of a somber and limited way. There is an area at MIT called Lobby 10, also known as Memorial Lobby, where names of fallen graduates of MIT in wars since WWI are inscribed on the walls. The ROTC would hold a small event there on Veterans Day (or the day before due to the actual day being a holiday) with only the highest administrators and special guests present. There were not very many student veterans present at these events. I wanted to change that. Additionally, I wanted to make it more of a celebration than a somber event. This was Veterans Day after all, not Memorial Day. I wanted to do something big.


Originally, I wanted to hold the event in front of the big MIT Dome, because, wouldn’t that be awesome? In the end, due to policy restrictions and other logistics issues, we agreed to use an indoor space called Walker Memorial Hall which could seat 200 people with the Covid spacing restrictions that still remained. Even with the spacing restrictions, I was very happy we were allowed to serve food, individually-packaged, of course. However, once the overall plans for the event became clear, the real challenge would come in the implementation.


I suppose planning this event was a similar experience to planning a large wedding. What is the timeline of events? What music should be played, and when? Arrangements for special guests. Decorations. Catering. Photos. Instead of mailed invitations, we needed campus-wide advertising. Who would manage tickets? And of course, how would we pay for all of this? Each of these were big issues, and I really needed to delegate these tasks to the other members, particularly of the Executive Board. However, the event was quickly becoming a bigger task than any of us had intended. We may have active members in the group, but we are all still students.


MIT SVA Members at the September M3

The Board consisted of two undergrad vets and two graduate veterans, myself included. While I had completed all of my class requirements, my qualifying exams, and my teaching requirement, everyone else was at a different stage in their academic progress and had much less available time. It wasn’t like we weren’t already busy with other things in the group. We were still handling tasks such as building up career development programming and securing better benefits for student veterans on campus. The idea of taking on so much extra work for an event that was geared for the civilians at MIT was daunting for some. One even wished me good luck, stating “I’m sure you’ll have many lessons to learn from this experience”, and refused to help with any aspect of the event. I started to realize that maybe I bit off more than I could chew. This Veterans Day was either going to be a huge success or a major failure for the MIT SVA.


After a long, thoughtful pause, I decided we needed to move forward with the event anyway. I had spent a significant amount of time drumming up support for the event from various entities around the campus, and our faculty advisor started raising funds for us by asking the Deans around MIT for financial support. Our first donation was $5,000! People were willing to support us, I just needed to find a way to actually make it happen. After several meetings with various leaders across the campus and getting in touch with administrators with event planning experience, I started devising a plan for getting the job done. I created three committees to handle the planning: the administrative committee who would handle contracts, special guests, and finances, the engagement committee who would make the programs and handle guests on the day of the event, and the marketing and promotions committee who would handle the advertising and decorations. Now I just needed to find people to lead these committees.


By the middle of October, other issues were coming up that also demanded my attention. We had known that veterans were facing difficulties with accessing their education benefits, but they seemed like single, individual events that would crop up from time to time. To our surprise, we found out that veterans in the business school were losing their education benefits due to an audit by the VA that found that MIT was not compliant with the certification paperwork for an MBA program. As you can imagine, this caused a huge uproar in the business school. The veterans in the Sloan School of Management were a tight-knit group since they are all located on the far side of campus and have all of their classes together in the two-year program, which is why they had formed their own club many years before ours, but because they were at Sloan, their reach around the campus was limited. Since we were the veteran’s group for all of MIT, our group was called on to help.


There were several issues at hand. Veterans were losing their financial support and needed funds immediately. Their tuition wasn’t being paid either, so that bill needed to be placed on hold until things got resolved. And of course, the certification issue needed to be rectified. Since this involved 15 veterans, this took priority over all else, which of course took time away from event planning. Once MIT started taking a look at the paperwork, they also realized that none of the PhD programs were correctly certified, so now we became aware that no veterans at MIT pursuing a PhD could use their education benefits either. This was becoming a huge mess.


When I took over as President of the SVA, another goal of mine was to get MIT to establish some permanent office to handle veteran issues, just like every other institution of higher learning in the country. It may be surprising to learn that MIT didn’t have such an office, but when I was elected in May, it seemed like an impossible goal to achieve. How would we get a full-time, benefits-eligible position funded and have the administration establish a new administrative office? With so many veterans now losing their benefits due to clerical issues, it was very clear that MIT needed this office established now. We needed it yesterday. There was a sense of urgency in October that made this lofty goal a necessary one to achieve. We needed what I was calling the Office of Veteran Success.


With Veterans Day fast approaching and my time being split in so many ways, I started to get worried. I wasn’t finding any volunteers for the three committees I mentioned above. The Executive Board had limited availability. Veterans were emailing me everyday explaining their difficult situations. My PhD advisor was wanting me to continue working on my research projects which I started to neglect. The pressure was mounting. I took stock of the situation. Veterans Day was a deadline. That day was coming no matter what, so that needed to start taking priority. If no one else was going to volunteer, then I needed to step up. I asked my advisor to let me take time off for the two weeks leading up to Veterans Day and I was so lucky that he agreed. I wrote a letter to the Dean of Sloan asking for the School to find funds to cover the expenses of the veterans in their program, and within a week, they agreed. We got MIT to hold off on the tuition bills for the affected students. It wasn’t a total fix, but we stabilized the situation and bought some more time. Now I needed to muster as much passion and energy as I could to pull off this event. Two weeks left.


While it sounds like I was running around doing all of this by myself, I was not alone. Ultimately, I was just coordinating the efforts of many other people who were specialized in their domains. I held meetings with Institute Events, the Campus Activities Complex, the Office of Graduate Education, MIT Audio/Visual, MIT Facilities, the MIT CARE Team, the MIT Info Center, MIT News, CopyTech, the Graduate Student Council, the Office of the First Year, the Institute Equity and Community Office, and the Student Organizations Leadership and Engagement office, among many other outside organizations and vendors. When I got the support of our ROTC and had almost 20 cadets volunteer to help set up decorations and manage the event, I knew we were going to be successful. They were going to post and retire the Colors with their all-service Color Guard, and they would MC the event. Our faculty advisor knew some important veterans from her other work and invited Admiral (Ret.) David Lane, former director of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Coleman Nee, former Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services to speak at our event, and they agreed! I invited the MIT Chancellor to speak as well, and she was more than willing. One of our professors is a veteran and I asked if he could be a source of inspiration for our students. He also agreed to speak. One of the cadets was also a part of the acapella group, the Logarhythms, and they agreed to perform the National Anthem for us. We had reached $15,000 in our fundraising efforts, so now we had enough money to pay for everything. It was finally coming together!


The 2021 MIT Veterans Day Celebration Event Poster

After much ado, the day finally came: November 11th, 2021. The advertising efforts seemed to work. We sold out the event a few days before, so we were expecting a full house. As the caterers started to arrive, the ROTC cadets also started to arrive. The programs were printed, the tables were set, the microphones and speakers were operational, the music was starting. The guests started arriving. It was time for the show.


The MIT Veterans Day Celebration was the biggest and best event for veterans at MIT since the 1940s (or so I was told). I couldn’t have imagined a better experience for the community on the day set aside to recognize the service and sacrifice that our veterans have made for this country. Each of the special guests gave profound and meaningful speeches that really drove home the message that veterans are a very talented and unique group of people that can offer so much to the world. The Office of Graduate Education created an amazing video showcasing our veterans that we presented in the middle of the event. The goal of bringing a level of awareness of our veterans to our civilian community was achieved. Most of those in attendance were civilians. Several came up to me after the event and expressed that they learned so much about veterans at the event that they would have never known. I was so happy that it was successful.


The Main Event - Photo Credit: Allegra Boverman

I was also happy it was over. I didn’t realize just how much stress I was under until the week after Veterans Day. I wanted to start picking back up on all of the other things I was not attending to, but I was finding it difficult to stay motivated. It was as if I had drained my batteries, but the semester was not finished. The work was not over. I needed to keep going.


Our meetings with the Office of the Vice Chancellor over the course of the year finally culminated in a commitment to establish what they are calling the Office of Student Veteran Success. An article in the Military Times helped push things over the edge. They secured funding for one full-time position and worked with us to write the job description and agreed to begin interviewing over the winter break. The OVC also worked with Student Financial Services and the Office of Graduate Education to compensate all PhD student veterans for the benefits they would have received since Dec 2020. Student Financial Services worked with all of the respective PhD program administrators to get the appropriate documentation to the VA to get those PhD programs properly certified. While the certification issues weren’t completely resolved, things were really looking positive for our student veterans at the end of the semester.


As a complete shock, the group was notified in December that we were nominated for the national SVA Chapter of the Year award. It was totally unexpected as this was just our first year as a chapter, but apparently someone out there felt compelled to recognize us. While we didn’t end up winning the award, I was certainly happy to see us selected as a finalist at the Student Veterans of America National Conference. Over the Fall Semester, the MIT SVA became something great in the eyes of others. I sincerely thank all of the people who worked alongside me to help bring about the change that we wanted to see.


The 2021 SVA Chapter of the Year Finalist Award

While all of this was great news, by the time the semester came to a close, I felt completely drained. I didn’t want to do anything anymore. When I say anything, I really mean anything. I would try to sit and read emails but I didn’t want to respond. I’d try to read a research paper, but my eyes would glaze over after a few minutes. I was really burnt out. I thought I’d take a road trip during the winter break and see friends and family, but as the Omicron variant of Covid started to spread, travel started to look risky. I decided to cancel my travel plans. I found out later that some of the people I would have visited ended up contracting the virus. So, instead of taking the vacation I felt I needed, I just stayed around Boston and worked on the van. I needed to do something different for a while.


After spending Christmas alone, I decided to start back up with the blog since it had been a year since I last wrote an entry. As I’ve spent the last month writing about my life over the past year, it’s been a great exercise in reflection. I suppose I needed to take some time to reflect upon things since it has been such a busy year, and, hey, why not do it in this very public way? At least I’ll keep you informed too. It’s been a challenging year, but I’ve learned so much.


Moving into the Spring Semester, I’m feeling recharged and ready to embark on my final few months as President of the MIT SVA. I think I’m going to try a different leadership approach for 2022. Rather than set a bunch of goals on my own and hope that I can find veterans willing to support my vision, I’m going to ask our active members what they would like to do and see. The biggest goal of establishing an administrative office for our veterans has been accomplished. We’re currently in our final interviews for the inaugural position. We’ve held several events over the Fall semester and we grew our membership from 10 to 49 members! We’ve established many new resources for student veterans, and we’ve raised awareness and support for veterans across the campus. We’ve done a lot!

Now I want to shift gears to start offering special events for our members, such as building a resume with military experience or how to navigate the VA system, but I can’t do it without a strong team. I have learned from the Fall Semester and I will not go it alone. I’ve met individually with several veterans who have expressed their interest in helping with the operations of the SVA over the month of January and I will bring us together soon to make a plan for the coming semester. Hopefully my next update will highlight our group’s successes with this new approach.


The Spring Semester is also going to be another big milestone in my academic progress toward my PhD. By the end of the semester, I need to complete my Thesis Proposal, and hopefully I will have submitted my first government fellowship application to fund me through the end of my training. Somehow, I need to accomplish this while keeping the SVA active and our members engaged. Stay tuned for the next post, likely at the end of the semester in May or June 2022. Until then, feel free to reach out, comment, and share the posts. Take care, friends.



-Omar

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