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Drexel Celebrates a Decade in the Yellow-Ribbon Program

November 04, 2019

Drexel Dragons participating in the Philadelphia Veterans Parade in 2018.
Drexel Dragons participating in the Philadelphia Veterans Parade in 2018.

When the Post-9/11 GI Bill™’s Yellow Ribbon Program was established in 2008 to cover tuition and fees for post-9/11 veterans, Drexel University, under the leadership of Interim President Chuck Pennoni ’63, ’66, Hon. ’92, took notice — even though the program offers full coverage at a public school, and limited coverage at private schools. That was no matter. By the next year, the program was up and running at Drexel, which was, and still is, extremely notable for several very special reasons.

Drexel was one of the first universities in the area to start its Yellow Ribbon Program, offering complete tuition coverage for veterans and their dependents to study at any of its schools through any of its programs both on campus and online. And, to this day, Drexel is one of the few universities in the country to have an uncapped number of spots available to student veterans and their dependents to study. Each year, the University commits $2 million for its Yellow Ribbon Program. 

In 2019, the University is celebrating a full decade of participating in the program, which means that it’s celebrating a decade of providing significant funding for over 2,000 student-veterans and dependents.

“It was a big, bold move for our institution to do this,” said Assistant Vice President of Student Life Rebecca Weidensaul, PhD, whose father served in the Army during World War II. “Not only was Drexel thinking about how to financially manage this, but it was also simultaneously thinking about how to set up systems that support students as well.”

Melissa Englund, associate director of academic operations in the College of Computing & Informatics, was working as the assistant vice president in Enrollment Management when Drexel announced its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program was announced, and she was part of the team that started working on implementing it on campus.

“We couldn’t just say, ‘OK, here’s your funding,’” said Englund, whose father served in the Navy during World War II. “We needed to create a community for veterans. And we did, and it’s really grown. I didn’t imagine it would be this large.”

Englund was a co-founding chair of the Veterans Task Force, which started in 2009 for advisors and staff from different key departments that year to serve as a valuable hub for student-veterans and help with their experience at the University, whether through academic, professional and social opportunities. 

In 2017, Drexel started its tradition of honoring its student-veterans with a flag display installed in time for Veterans Day.

The 2009–2010 academic year was the first year that the Yellow Ribbon Program was offered at Drexel, and 45 student-veterans came to campus. Now, nearly 700 students (510 veterans and 188 dependents) are currently at Drexel through the program, and the number of offered services and opportunities has increased exponentially as well.

The Office of Veteran Student Services has grown the offerings to military-connected students exponentially over the past decade, providing resources to support academic success, financing, counseling and disability resources; holding early course registration for student-veterans; hosting career networking, philanthropic, community and social events; creating and maintaining the Masci Family Veterans Lounge; and hosting military-friendly communities like the Drexel Veterans Association for student-veterans, the Drexel Veterans Alumni Network and the Drexel Veterans Colleague Resource Group. Over the years, Drexel has also joined several local veterans’ networks and consortiums to inform its practices and provide additional information and expertise. And, it helps that Drexel is close to the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and the VA Philadelphia Regional Office.

“I think we as a campus are doing everything we can to make this the best experience for our veterans and the students who are using those benefits,” said Bryant Morris, assistant director of Drexel Central, who has been involved with the Yellow Ribbon Program since he started at Drexel in 2010. “I think we’re moving in the right direction with some things.”

With all that’s happened in the last 10 years, there’s even more possibility for the next decade. Thanks to the generosity of the Tom Masci family, Drexel will be starting some upgrades in the Veterans Lounge in 2020 and creating additional opportunities for career, educational and civic programming, according to Weidensaul.

“We are especially eager to help our student-veterans leverage their military careers to position themselves well for civilian careers,” she said. “And, our colleagues from the Steinbright Career Development Center have been great partners in providing networks and pathways to military friendly employers. I’ve always really appreciated Drexel’s vision in terms of recruitment and retention of the student veterans. I think it’s just a matter of leveraging our resources to do the best job we can.”

Every year, Drexel honors the service of Dragons who have served through special Veterans Day programming. This year, that year includes a Veterans Day tribute, participation in Philadelphia’s fifth annual Veterans Day Parade, an American flag installation, a discussion and film screening related to combating PTSD, a networking event and presentation, and a special event during a men’s basketball game.

A group of Drexel veterans at last year's "Women's Basketball and Drexel Athletics Salutes America's Veterans" event.

“I hope my colleagues will come out to some of our events in November to learn more about the work we are doing and consider ways that they may contribute authentically to the growth and development of our military-connected students,” said Weidensaul.

With Veterans Day just around the corner, and the big Yellow Ribbon Program anniversary being celebrated this year, DrexelNow interviewed five veterans who are students and staff members about their experiences with Drexel’s Yellow Ribbon Program. Here’s what they had to say:

Wolph-Ashton Clark, senior psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences, who served in the Navy as a logistics specialist:

The Yellow Ribbon Program gave me an opportunity to go to a private school. I just didn’t think I would have the opportunity with the limited space and tuition fees. But I found out that Drexel was uncapped. I still didn’t believe it until I got accepted. 

So I’m here now and it has made a big difference in my life. I had the opportunity to meet new friends. The professors in the psychology department are amazing and they’re really personable. I can ask any question about areas I’m having difficulties with. Like, I was getting discouraged all the time with math, and Drexel has this Math Resource Center and it helps me a lot.

I don’t think I would have gotten the same experience from a different school. Drexel made a difference in my life where I can feel like I’m able to succeed as a student. I didn’t have the confidence in the beginning, and now I do. There’s no obstacle in my way. That’s how I feel when I’m here.

Andrew Stoffer, senior health science major in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies, who served in the Navy as a corpsman providing medical services to Marines:

The level of commitment and support that Drexel has shown the veteran community is palpable. It’s something that really conveys an understanding and appreciation for the sacrifices we’ve made. For many of us, it’s the reason we chose this school over Temple, Villanova or even University of Pennsylvania. There’s certainly a prestige that’s synonymous with going here but it’s the reputation Drexel has earned as an elite military-friendly university that really puts some distance between them. I know that this is something that took a great deal of work to achieve and as a veteran, it’s something I hold in high regard.

In 2019, Drexel opened the Masci Family Student Veterans Lounge, which was renovated thanks to a generous gift from U.S. Army veteran Thomas A. Masci, Jr. ’68, center. Andrew Stoffer is on his left.

I came here for many reasons but one that really stood out was the sincerity in everything Drexel does for us by proving transitional classes designed to help us balance a work-life relationship and its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Fund — without which, a lot of us couldn’t be here. Last June, Drexel held a small ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Masci Family Student Veteran Lounge. This has been a place devoted to veterans, allowing us to connect with other Veterans and really giving us a place that we can call “ours.” This continued support from Drexel and its distinguished veteran alumni, like Tom Masci ’68, is a product of their positive experiences with Drexel and the values they have learned while they were students here.

Drexel has always recognized the value of our real-world experience and the diversity we can add, and fuses the principles we learned in the military to cultivate a generation of intelligent and well-informed professionals. At the end of the day, veteran or not, I think that’s a philosophy we can all benefit from.

Olivia McDonald, a third-year organizational management and marketing student in the LeBow College of Business, who served in the Marine Corps for four years as a combat correspondent:

I’ve loved Drexel and wanted to come here since I was a junior in high school, and then I enlisted instead. I had about a year between getting out of the military and coming here where I was looking at a lot of private schools that all had caps and I didn’t know how I could possibly take on all that debt. Then I found out that Drexel has an uncapped program here and I basically immediately sent in my application. It was really exciting to come here and be in a big city. I feel like it’s definitely kind of changed the trajectory that I was on. I was really unsure of what kind of opportunities were going to be out there for me, and being able to come to a great school like this and not having to worry about a tuition bill has given me a lot. It’s like a huge weight off your back, and it allows you to focus on what you’re here to do. It’s just opened up so many doors that I didn’t even know were there. And you have that support of the community here, and I’ve met so many people here at so many events.

Jess Wisniewski, assistant director of events and visitor relations in Enrollment Management & Student Success, who served in the Navy for four years as a mechanical engineer:

I’m also the advisor for the Drexel Veterans Association, the student veteran organization here on campus, and I am getting ready to wrap up my master’s here in 2020 with the Legal Studies Program. I stretched my GI Bill right on into my master’s, so it was really great to be able to use it here and not receive a bill because of its Yellow Ribbon Program.

I do know what it’s like to start at a university that does have that cap. It was stressful for me to be somewhere that has a cap when you don’t understand the process properly. And for veterans, your first semester out of the military in any place at any new school — it’s not great. So with everything that veterans also bring to college with them, whether it be their families or a full-time job, it’s really great to know that you’re not going to get a bill at an uncapped Yellow Ribbon School. Not every university is uncapped so it’s really great that Drexel is.

John Doerr, assistant director of veteran’s services in Drexel Central, who retired from the Air Force last year after serving for 20 years in multiple roles, primarily in aircraft structural maintenance and as a Fabrication Functional Manager for a Major Command:

I was familiar with the Yellow Ribbon program prior to taking this position because I am an Air Force veteran who has used the GI Bill and I’ve worked with the VA as a contractor. But I was shocked when I got here and saw that Drexel was an uncapped university. It’s like seeing a unicorn. It’s a fantastic program, and it’s an easy selling point. When prospective students reach out to me and I explain how the process works with regards to the national cap and Drexel being a private institution, it opens that door. The prospective students become a little bit more engaged and excited. And just hearing their enthusiasm through the phone or if they are in the office — it’s fantastic and it’s actually contagious. Seeing the smile on the student’s face, or their parents’ faces when they come in and see that this can happen and it’s not that hard of a process — it’s just awesome.