Over the first of his two tours of duty in Iraq, former Marine Sgt. Andrew Gates used a shovel and cement truck to keep crucial supply routes open to frontline U.S. operating bases.
Gates will have more tools at his disposal as St. Ambrose's first Coordinator of Veterans Recruitment and Services. But he believes paving a path to available education benefits is no less of a service to his former comrades in arms.
"I really don't see myself as a recruiter," said Gates, a 32-year-old Iowa native who received a SAU Bachelor of Arts in Journalism at last month's winter commencement ceremonies. "I'm here to facilitate the experience and to make it as pleasant as possible for them to get their education.
"Recruiting is going to be a big part of my job. But I am not just trying to sell something here. I have been through the St. Ambrose experience. It worked for me. It can work for others."
The creation of the new position and the purposeful hiring of a war-tested veteran only should strengthen SAU's reputation among veterans groups. Ambrose has been designated a "Military Friendly School" for four straight years by the veteran-owned Victory Media G.I. Jobs.
Gates believes empathy and understanding will be two of his foremost strengths as he works to encourage more veterans to take advantage of service benefits like the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill as well as the Yellow Ribbon Program. The latter is a grant partnership between schools like SAU and the Department of Veterans Affairs that helps offset the difference in tuition between state-supported and private universities.
"I don't care what benefit you have," said Gates, who used the G.I. Bill and the YRP to earn his SAU degree, "I need to get you in a classroom."
John Cooper, SAU's vice president for enrollment, said the school succeeded not only in hiring a veteran to lead the university's efforts to accommodate vets. It hired the right one, he said.
"Andrew graduated on Saturday and we hired him that following Monday," Cooper said. "That's how impressed we were with what he brings to our effort to better serve veterans at St. Ambrose.
"His leadership and communication skills combined with his experience as a veteran going back to college to complete a degree will be a huge asset."
Gates said he is "defining" his position as the first to hold the Coordinator of Veterans Recruitment and Services title. His mission is to "learn and let it develop," but his goals are tangible. He wants to increase the number of veterans on campus by reaching out to the DVA, the Arsenal and veterans groups throughout the region.
He also plans to focus on retention of current veteran students, by offering a diverse menu of assistance and direction. Gates said he will partner with on-campus veterans groups such as the Military and Veterans Organization and the Student Veterans of America.
Gates said having more veterans at SAU helps do more than increase enrollment.
"Just to have that kind of diversity in the classroom helps everyone," he said. "It brings a perspective into the classroom. I think it is important that people learn outside their comfortable little box. That is extremely beneficial to everyone involved, including the instructors and professors."
Email Gates at GatesAndrewA@sau.edu.
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