By Katie Zeck
“Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply-held beliefs, and when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter — the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”
In this excerpt from his victory speech given early on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 7, President Barack Obama highlights American citizens’ ability to freely express their beliefs and their right to elect our nation’s leaders — all of which would not be possible without the men and women who have served in the United State’s military to defend those rights and freedoms.
As a service to our soldiers, Rider’s Veterans Association offers collaborative support and encouragement to the university’s veteran population and military service members to achieve their academic goals, according to the association’s new coordinator Jack Stoffa.
RU4VETS, the association’s abbreviated name, looks to foster communication within the Rider community, provide accurate information regarding issues affecting veterans and to offer updated entitlement and benefit information for Rider’s military service students. There are currently about 75 student veterans enrolled at Rider under the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Bill, Stoffa said.
According to Stoffa, the association provides individual care to each of Rider’s veterans to help them adjust to a college setting following their military experiences.
“To come out of a combat zone, it might sound weird, but you’re very comfortable even though you’re scared to death,” he said. “When I flew helicopters, underneath your gloves, you knew your knuckles were solid white from gripping the controls because things are happening, but the comfort that you take is the human you’re serving side-by-side. You take the comfort of that bonding and that wraps around you.”
The Yellow Ribbon Bill, according to jointservicesupport.org, allows veterans to get undergraduate or graduate degrees for free or transfer the entitlement to his or her child or spouse. To be a yellow ribbon vet, a soldier needs to have served in a combat zone after 9/11.
Stoffa confirmed that there are about 10 regular-track students attending Rider under their parents’ entitlement.
“We treat them just like our veterans,” he said. “They are the extension of their mom or dad who served. We wrap our arms around them and consider them to be part of our veterans’ association.”
Stoffa stressed the importance of the sense of community RU4VETS provides the student veterans.
“There’s no way the bonding can ever be like what it was in the combat zone, but that love and that family relationship is what begins the moment when you start to feel comfortable again. And after going through all that, they say, ‘You know what? I want to do something with my life; I want to go to college.’ It’s the greatest step they could ever take. But what do we do? We throw them in with 18- or 19-year-olds, and some of our professors can be younger than our vets. Where is that bonding? It’s here at our veterans’ association.”
For RU4VETS’ president Joe Michlik, a senior finance major, Rider was the ideal school to attend following eight years of deployment overseas. He joined the National Guard right after high school and was sent to Germany, where he lived for six years, and later spent two years in Afghanistan.
“In 2010, I decided I would get out of my contract [with the National Guard] and go to school,” he said. “When I was in Afghanistan, I spoke with Rider’s Admissions office. I returned to the U.S. later that year and sat down with my admissions counselor. She asked me a few questions about my aspirations and what sort of experiences I had while being in the military. By the end of the day, I was accepted, had signed up for classes and gotten my Rider ID.”
Michlik said that Rider made him feel very welcomed in the college community.
“The day was a special moment for me because I could feel the respect from her and just know that she took my military experience as a good thing. She said, ‘It would be an honor to have you at this school.’”
He added that the faculty and administration have been very supportive.
“There have been many professors who have been greatly helpful for a student vet coming back to school after being out of school for 10 years,” he said.
Michlik said he is excited that the organization is growing and offering a wider range of services to student veterans.
“Last year was difficult for RU4VETS because there was no way for us to connect with the soldiers attending Rider,” he said. “Student affairs could not give us the information of which students on campus were veterans because of a confidentiality clause. This made it hard to hold meetings because there was not a strong showing of Rider student veterans.”
Michlik said that with Stoffa as the new veteran affairs coordinator, all of the veterans that enroll at Rider are directed to him, which allows the organization to know exactly which students on campus are veterans. Michlik added that his duties as president include a wide range of responsibilities.
“As RU4VETS president, I organize events and meetings, make sure every student veteran is doing well and direct them to the appropriate person if they have any issues, whether it be physical, psychological or financial,” Michlik said. “Even if it’s just sitting down and listening to something they’re dealing with, I’m glad to offer a hand to any fellow vet.”
Senior elementary education and psychology major Tyler Hobbs joined the military after a difficult time in high school.
“I became very undisciplined and barely passed my senior year,” Hobbs said in an email. “I decided that if I wanted to do something with my life, maybe the Marine Corps would be a good start. I joined right after high school and was trained to be an aviation mechanic. I signed on for five years in the Marine Corps.
During his deployments in Bangladesh, Japan and South Korea, Hobbs began teaching other Marines how to shoot rifles and pistols. It was here that he found a love for education.
“I chose Rider University for its size and educational program,” he said.“When I first came to Rider I was worried about not remembering anything from high school — it was six years since I was in an actual class. The College of Continuing Studies (CCS) was a great help in getting me back into the groove of school and helped me relax about and smoothly transition into the change in environment and pace of life.”
Hobbs added that many of Rider’s faculty members played a role in his smooth transition from the military to college.
“Karen Crowell, Angela Gonzalez Walker and Boris Vilic from CCS have been a great help to me getting started with school,” he said. “Greg Hanf, the ID guy and former military man himself, also helped me to adjust from the military to life at college which helped to get me out of my shell and begin to enjoy college and all that Rider has to offer.”
Stoffa is also a former member of the army. He is a retired U.S. army warrant officer helicopter test and instructor pilot with a 39-year military career. He served as the assistant program manager for the Army National Guard Yellow Ribbon Reintegration program. He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science and Technology in aviation flight technology from Thomas Edison State College.
“Our organization’s motto is not just RU4VETS, it’s VETS4RU,” Stoffa said. “It sums up what our true vision and obligation is: keeping each other on target to achieve our academic success. But at the same time, we want the Rider community to know that they are strong because they take care of veterans.”
Additional reporting by Emily Eiermann and David Miller.
Contact this writer at