Helping Veterans Transition to Engineering Careers

A program at Virginia Tech supports veterans and their families.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

The original post-World War II GI Bill helped produce 14 future Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, a dozen U.S. senators, hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors, and dentists, 240,000 accountants, and countless other career success stories.

Mary Kasarda enjoys citing those numbers (her source: Over Here, a book by Edward Humes about how the GI Bill transformed America). Her favorite statistic, however, “the one nearest and dearest to my heart,” is that of the 450,000 future engineers who emerged from wartime to take advantage of the first GI Bill to further their education and go on to productive and competitive engineering jobs in civilian life.  

Kasarda, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s department of mechanical engineering, hopes that Virginia Tech can enhance the newest GI Bill--the Post-911 legislation--to produce a new crop of talented engineers for industry, government and academia. With this in mind, the school plans to provide educational and other adjunct programs that will supplement the benefits available under the newest legislation drafted by Congress in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The federal legislation covers tuition and provides a stipend, but Virginia Tech wants to do more.

“We are focusing on transitioning graduate students into new careers,” says Kasarda, who is working with Mark Pierson, also a mechanical engineering associate professor, Eugene Brown, professor of mechanical engineering and Karen DePauw, dean of the graduate school in designing “Veterans@ VT: A Program for Recruiting, Transitioning and Supporting Veterans to Graduate Programs in Engineering and Beyond to Civilian Careers.” “We want to encourage them to apply to our program, but we also want to help them with their unique needs as veterans,” she adds.

The program is supported by a $203,977 National Science Foundation grant as part of  its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding. The money will be used to develop a special education program for veterans, as well as support for their families, so veterans can easily move into academic, government or industry careers in  engineering and science. 

“We prepare a lot of our engineering students for jobs with defense contractors--Northrop Grumman hires a lot, as does Boeing and General Electric,” Kasarda says. “Our graduates are in demand.”

Virginia Tech has always had a special interest in veterans; it holds a strong relationship with all of the branches of the U.S. armed services through its Corps of Cadets Program, which has both a military track and a civilian track.

The school also runs a special program for graduate students, Transformative Graduate Education, which aims to provide opportunities for graduate students that complement their academic. The idea is to prepare them for real-life situations in the workplace and in academia.

For veterans, this also means easing the way for them from the military into school, and then into industrial, government or academic jobs.

The program plans to identify and try to address the special concerns of returning veterans, such as helping their spouses find work, and providing information on housing, health needs, counseling services, schools and child care, Kasarda says. 

The school also will try to make it easier for out-of-state vets to attend Virginia Tech under the new GI Bill at in-state tuition costs, which are considerably less for Virginia residents,- and to provide course credit for selected parts of their military experience. For example, for those have worked on nuclear submarines and have taken courses in nuclear Navy school.  

“We’re not looking just at the vet, but at the entire family unit,” she says.  “Part of our goal is to coordinate all of this into one stop shopping for the veteran. We’re identifying these issues and looking at strategies to address them. The bottom line is creating a more veteran-friendly community experience.”