By Dennis Cosmo
Every military veteran studying at Bryant University should be in the Student Veterans of America (SVA) Membership Network. If you are a brother, sister, or a loved one of a current service member transitioning out of the military you should also be in the Member Network as well. Real opportunities for student veteran success are communicated through SVA almost weekly. Internships, Fellowships, additional scholarships, tours of the Google Campus in Cambridge, MA, and even leadership training. For the past seven years, SVA has run a program to groom authentic leadership qualities in tomorrow’s leaders of industry and civics. In September I had the good fortune to attend my second Student Veterans of America Leadership Institute in our nation’s capital, Washington, DC and represent Bryant University. This selective, discussion-led event assembled 100 student veterans from all branches of the military, including the honorable Coast Guard. SVA was also honored to welcome a member of the Australian Student Veteran Association for the first time bonding the allied nations in not only the warrior ethos but the pursuit of knowledge and careers after military service.
The intensive program included pre-travel online work dealing with the psychological phenomenon of “Imposter Syndrome”. This was a major theme in the 2017 Leadership Institute held in Dallas, Texas. Veterans are proud of their experience and service, capable in many challenging situations, and thrive in rapidly changing environments. They are high achievers and producers. But they can also feel inadequate too. When the 2017 cohort met each other there was a sense of “I don’t deserve to be here”. Sharing stories of trauma, difficulty, resilience, and grit set everyone in awestruck of their peers. The achievements in classrooms, on campuses, in houses of the legislature, and communities made the cohort do a lot of introspection and feelings inadequacy in comparison to the young man to the left and the young woman to the right. SVA President and CEO Jared Lyon were quick to dispel that by instilling the fact that each and every single attendee were purposely chosen, selected, and BELONGS in this hallowed space. This simple act of leadership set a tone of excellence and pride. The 2018 cohort was quick to move past the imposter syndrome and capitalize on the electric environment of high-achieving student veterans.
The first organized activity after checking in to the hotel and taking professional headshots was a service project. Strangers from Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Florida, Australia, and of course two from Rhode Island (Bryant and Brown) came together. With humor and vigor to student veterans stuffed teddy bears, filled care packages with toiletries, and braided paracord bracelets for service members currently deployed in hostile areas from where many of the cohorts recently returned. The work benefited Operation Gratitude, a non-profit supporting deployed service members with creature comforts and tokens of appreciation from the States. This ice-breaker event got people to communicate, task organizes, and form work groups. The group exchanged names, experiences, and laughter. Doing this in the first few hours bonded strangers and reduced social anxiety. After inspirational opening remarks, a social mixer followed and we broke into our 25-person cohorts for more formal introductions which went well into the first night.
The next day we were provided a tour of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in The White House complex. Strict Secret Service screening would have intimidated most but this group of former warfighters, most with Top Secret clearances and combat experience, joked to themselves and made light of the situation, and Agents, like only military veterans can do. In the Eisenhower building, we were treated to four guest speakers. Some from Prudential Financial’s Veteran Initiative. Prudential funded airfare, meals, lodging, and programming for the entire event demonstrating their belief in student veterans and their leadership potential in the modern business environment. Other speakers included policymakers and advisors from the President’s Veterans Council. This included the former Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Lieutenant General Kellogg.
The next few days we were broken into our cohorts for in-depth discussions and reassembled as a whole class for meals and panels from great influencers. At the center of the event was each individual’s introspection into their core values. This serves as our foundation; our bedrock. Every challenge that is placed in front of us or hard decision is weighed against our values. Our decisions, words, and actions (or lack thereof) are outward portrayals of our true values. It is easy to be given a list of values and select what sounds best or what one thinks others want to hear. But this exercise was a real test. Be authentic. Be true to yourself. The next exercise was to choose characteristics that best represent us. Again this is a little challenging and recalls to mind the Johari Window. This is a matrix of what is known and unknown to the self as well as what is known and unknown to others. We all have varying beliefs, values, and thoughts. We have ideal selves that we imagine we display in the public arena but more often than not are blind to what others see in our character. We put on a façade to hide qualities we are conscious of but do not want others to see. The real test is choosing the honest values we hold true to ourselves and how they mirror the characteristics someone intimate and someone tangential would label us as. Do they correlate? Then our values are clear and guide our behavior and leadership correctly. Do our chosen values sound different from the characteristics people describe us as? Then the mirror-self and actual self-care not aligned, and we have not clearly defined our values to ourselves. People recognize authenticity. And in this example, more introspection is needed. This was the heart and soul of the Leadership Institute: Genuine, authentic, values-based leadership.
Do our chosen values sound different from the characteristics people describe us as? Then the mirror-self and actual self-care not aligned, and we have not clearly defined our values to ourselves.
The guest speakers and panels all related one way or another to this and professional development. Every person on the stage was better than the last. People you not only wanted to connect with on LinkedIn or for mentorship but sincere human beings you wanted to be around the other 362 days of the year. Speakers talked about setting personal goals like reading a book a week for a year to stimulate their neural plasticity while being an active listener to their three-year-old child. A Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient recalling the same petty anxieties in a college classroom we are all familiar with while Congressmen review his actions and valor in Washington, DC to determine if he should be awarded our Nation’s highest decoration. Coming back to center and the true value of leadership is what the 2018 SVA Leadership Institute is all about. While continuously challenging ourselves and raising the bar, we must always remain humble and be a servant-leader. The energy and optimism were electric. Being surrounded by peers with the same struggles but maybe different dreams were reassuring. No doubt friendships were made.
There was a sense and desire to return to our Universities and campuses with a renewed purpose. On the last night, there was a tour of the monuments in DC. The war memorials were particularly poignant for this group of veterans. But I don’t think there were many that would disagree that the highlight was visiting the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. This hallowed monument seemed to calcify all the lessons and discussions during the Leadership Institute into one impressive visual. Dr. King, a true values-based, servant leader put words to action and risked everything to bring people together so that they, not him, could reap the reward. His leadership wasn’t narrowed to a battlefield. His leadership was in the heart of a Nation so that it could heal and grow to prosper united and not segmented. He recognized the value of each person contributing to the end goal. His vision can be felt at the monument. And it was felt in the Leadership Institute in 2018.
The lessons learned from the Leadership Institute were directly applied to the founding of the Bryant Veterans Professional Network. We are a values-based, professional organization open to all Bryant students passionate about helping military veterans and strengthening the community. We meet Tuesdays at 5 pm in the ROTC/Veteran Lounge located in the lower level of the Koffler Center. Come and visit us soon.