November 13, 2019 : By Ryan Klinker - Liberty University News Service
As the population of Liberty University students arriving to campus as military veterans has developed into a large, tight-knit community, the need for a space to fittingly serve the roughly 500 residential veterans became evident. The Veterans Center, which began as a small office in 2016, has now tripled in size with its move to a new location in the Montview Student Union, marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Wednesday morning.
When the center first opened, the small area was quickly filled and began overflowing with students who sought fellowship with other service members.
“We’ve had somewhat of the same number of veterans, but we always had too little of a space to fit that population,” explained Jon Norman, supervisor of the Veterans Center. “We knew it was important to us that we come together and have that space to experience life as veterans together, mentor each other, and teach how to be successful in the transition to civilian education.”
Now located in Room 2770 on the second floor of Montview, the Veterans Center is a place to connect student veterans to resources both on and off Liberty’s campus, including military benefits, counseling, and disability claims. However, Norman stated that the most frequent service that the center provides is a place for fellowship as well as mentorship — from peers and also from faculty, staff, and community residents who have served their country.
The ceremony featured James “Jesse” MacDonald, president of Liberty’s Student Veterans Association (SVA) and this year’s recipient of the George Rogers Champion of Freedom Award.
MacDonald described the center as a “rally point” for student veterans.
“A rally point is something that every soldier knows, from the lowliest private to every general, as a place to go when you are in need and can find someone wearing a uniform that looks like yours,” MacDonald said.
Rich Diddams, executive director of Liberty’s Center for Engineering & Research Education and a veteran with a long and high-ranking career in the military and government, spoke about the bond that develops between soldiers in spite of the differences in race, age, or gender. He said every service member takes an oath to defend the Constitution and serve the United States, and much like the dedication to Christ that every believer holds, that oath does not end.
“The values you learn in your training like honor, courage, and commitment, and your belief in Jesus Christ as your Savior, call each of us to a mission that continues,” Diddams said. “We still have a mission to perform, and that is to serve — until God calls us home, we are to serve.”
Norman said this idea reinforces “Service Semper,” or “service always,” which is the SVA motto. He explained that while many other colleges show support for those who have served, Liberty cares for its military students in a special way.
“I could not do my job at another university,” Norman said. “The way that Liberty University uniquely loves veterans and points us to Christ as we make this transition while supporting us and thanking us for our service, that helps us be successful now.”
The ceremony was closed in prayer by Steven Keith, executive director of the Center for Chaplaincy. He dedicated the space to God and prayed for the students who use the space to “not only come in and find more than they’re looking for, but…go out to share all across the campus, country, and globe.”
Student veteran Gunnar Ingram said that he will be taking advantage of the space as a place to meet more of his peers and do schoolwork. He said finding veterans outside of the center is often hard; you have to just spot certain clothing or haircuts. But he looks forward to connecting with more veterans like himself at the center.
“Most of the times that I meet or come into contact with other veterans is here in the center,” Ingram said. “I’m a commuter student and get to campus early, so this will be a great place to spend my time during the day.”
Following the ceremony, guests were invited to walk through the center and inquire more about its services. The center hosted the annual Veterans Reception at noon.
Wednesday’s events were part of Military Emphasis Week, sponsored by Liberty’s Military Affairs Office. Thursday’s Convocation Select will be veterans-themed, featuring evangelist and Liberty Board of Trustees member Tim Lee and Mansoor Shams, the “Muslim Marine.” Friday’s Convocation will also honor veterans and feature guest speaker Nikki Haley. The Student Veteran Alliance Gala, organized by SVA and sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project and local businesses, will be held on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Liberty is expected to surpass 35,000 military students (service members, veterans and military spouses) in its online and residential programs by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, and the university continues to be in the top 10 on the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2020 ranking (see Online and Nontraditional Schools category), which ranked Liberty at No. 2 for online and nontraditional schools this year.