Serving Soldiers-Turned-Students

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 2, 2009)  Sometimes history does repeat itself in the most remarkable ways.

On Monday, former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons -  who as a state legislator was the guiding force behind the founding of the University of South Florida – gathered with several dozen students in conference room at the university’s Joint Military Leadership Center.

Decades separate Gibbons, now 89, and the students in their 20s in 30s. Time has made it hard to imagine what Gibbons exactly had in mind when he aimed to turn a dusty former airfield into a university to serve maybe 10,000 students - now 47,000 come to the Tampa campus.

But the statesman and the students shared one important bond. They are veterans, and their educations were made possible through the G.I Bill. 

Gibbons – the World War II paratrooper who parachuted into France the morning of the D-Day Invasion – came together with the Post 9/11 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly seven decades separate their service to the nation, but that didn’t matter to the father of USF, who attended the University of Florida on the G.I. Bill along with his brother Myron.

“I can definitely put myself in their position,” Gibbons said as he prepared for a roundtable discussion between the students and officials from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on the new G.I. Bill. “It made it possible for me to go to school – to go with dignity and go and spend a lot of time with the books.”

USF has taken a national leadership role in implementing the new GI Bill. It is the first university in the nation to enter into an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide focused services to students attending under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. VetSuccess on Campus has allowed for VA counselor to be stationed on campus to assist students in the transition from soldier to scholar, helping out with everything from academics to medical issues and career counseling.

The program is new, but USF’s special attention to veterans isn’t. The university has a long history of working hand-in-glove with veterans, and has the nation’s 10th largest population of veterans and dependents students on campus.

Many consider the GI Bill one of the nation’s most successful educational initiatives and the greatest investment in higher education ever made because it made it possible for former service men and women to complete their educations and find advanced jobs in all sectors of the American economy. The hope is the new GI Bill will do the same, giving young battle-tested leaders the education needed to invigorate the economy.

Universities have a way of linking the past with the present, and that was no more evident than at this unique gathering. In Florida, where there were just three state universities at the end of World War II, overcrowded campuses were an obstacle to those seeking an education. The need for universities to serve the burgeoning population brought on the post World War II settlement of veterans in Florida and the resulting Baby Boom prompted Gibbons to push for the creation of USF in 1956.

Gibbons recounted his own entry into the GI bill – which compared to today’s more complex paperwork must have seemed like a breeze. Gibbons said when he returned home to Florida after completing his service in the Army, he called his brother to pick him up. The pair immediately drove to University of Florida where Myron was already in law school.

“He said, ‘Sam, I want you come in here and meet someone, it will only take a few minutes,’” the congressman recalled. “So I went in to the law school and shook a few hands and about 10 minutes later I was in.”

USF’s historical connection to the VA doesn’t end there. Once in Washington, Gibbons recalled, a VA official visited his Capitol Hill office to discuss plans to build a new medical center in Tampa. The problem was, the VA didn’t build hospitals in communities where there wasn’t a medical school.

“I said we don’t have a medical school, and he said let’s work on that,” Gibbons recollected.

And the rest, they say, is history.

 

The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged, four-year public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF was awarded more than $360 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2007/2008. The university offers 224 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 46,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.

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