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New student vet leader details priorities

Jan. 16, 2014 - 12:04PM   |  
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D. Wayne Robinson, a retired command sergeant major, is applying his experience leading soldiers to his role as president and CEO of Student Veterans of America. (Student Veterans of America)

Six years ago, a few student-veteran groups on various college campuses connected with each other using social media and formed a joint organization.

Their group, Student Veterans of America, now boasts some 950 chapters that represent vets in schools across the nation. Speaking at SVA’s annual meeting Jan. 4, Curtis Coy, deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity in the Veterans Affairs Department, noted the influence that the still-young organization wields in Washington.

Whenever VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is in a conversation about student veterans or veterans in academic environments, “the first thing he says is, ‘Where’s SVA on this?’ ” Coy said.

In October, retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. D. Wayne Robinson took over as SVA’s president and chief executive officer. Robinson, who previously worked for a Wall Street investment firm, laid out some of the perspectives and priorities that he brings to his new role in a Jan. 4 interview with Military Times.

High on his agenda are managing SVA’s growth and completing the Million Records Project, a joint effort with VA to track the academic success of vets using the GI Bill.

Here are five questions Robinson answered:

Q. Why did you want to lead SVA?

A. In my mind, I was always developing these models for what is the most effective school, and one that meant ... it would work in urban environments, it would work next to a military base. How could you find that? And so in looking at those models, I met the chairman [of SVA], we were talking and he told me they were a small organization, small staff. But then ... I’d look at the products that they were putting out, and it was very dynamic, and very impressive. They had the right message. And so I dove deeper and deeper, and the more I looked, the more I was impressed.”

Q. What goals do you have for SVA?

A. There are some gaps that I think that we can ... bridge. One of those areas, obviously, is the Million Records Project. I want to position us to be thought-leaders in vet education. So that’s one. The other is, we’re developing an alumni program. With that, I’d like for us to have an emphasis in the area of internships. When we look at the number of vets taking jobs, it’s great. It’s on the rise. But the retention rate drops. ... [With internships] the vet will get exposed to the company; the company gets exposed to the vet, with little to no risk.”

Q. Has anything surprised you in the short time that you’ve been leading SVA?

A. It’s surprising to see the number of organizations that are interested in helping student vets. That was a pleasant surprise. Probably on the opposite end of the spectrum is identifying those with the true passion of helping vets and not just getting into the space for a short period of time. ... The vet space, although it looks big, is actually very small. And so everyone talks to everyone, everyone knows everyone. So the reputation costs are high. If there’s a mistake, if there’s a misstep, generally everyone knows about it. So that makes it easy.

Q. What does SVA do well now, and what could the organization improve on?

A. What we do very well is deliver the programs. Programs that we advertise, we’re able to get from D.C. down to the campus, and we communicate very well with chapters. It’s pretty easy for us to get the word out through direct contact and electronic transmissions. What we could do a better job of is probably managing our growth. We’re growing like wildfire. That’s good and bad. We’re representing more. The downside of that is ensuring that we continue to deliver the programs ... to a greater number of individuals. With that always comes funding issues.

Q. What advice would you offer service members transitioning out of the military?

A. Be an informed consumer of your education benefits. Don’t just get a degree to check a block. That’s different than what we’ve heard throughout our career, because we were looking to get degrees — on the enlisted side — to be able to check a block and get promoted or to qualify for a promotion. Now we’re saying, no, you want to be able to utilize that [degree]. Second thing I would say is, it can be tough. Utilize all the skills of perseverance that we learned in the military. Push through. Don’t stop at the first “no.”

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