A student’s email critical of planned 9/11 remembrance activities has hit a nerve with Winthrop University’s president, prompting her to pledge that the school will “double down” on helping student veterans.
The student emailed Winthrop President Jayne Marie Comstock the day before the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
He was responding to Comstock’s university-wide email sent the day before, in which she asked those on campus “pause and reflect (on Sept. 11), while also rededicating ourselves to service to our communities, our nation and the world”.
Comstock’s email also said the school would lower its flags to half-staff, and Winthrop’s chimes would sound “God Bless America” in the afternoon and play TAPS at 8:46 a.m. – the time hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001.
The student found the president’s Sept. 9 email “inappropriate,” according to Comstock’s blog post published a week later.
“In my opinion, patriotism should be a low order of priority for a university president,” the student wrote to Comstock.
The president’s response: Winthrop will “double down” on its effort to help student veterans succeed in college.
Comstock, whose husband, Larry Williamson, is a retired Navy captain, said on her blog that Winthrop will take a “top-down” approach to helping student veterans.
Like most university initiatives, she said, improving student veteran support programs needs the backing of the college’s top leader.
At Winthrop, about 275 students have served in the U.S. military or are dependents of servicemen or servicewomen.
The U.S. government estimates that nearly 1 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars enrolled in college in 2011. The largest source of educational financial aid for those veterans, including many local students, is the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Over recent years, Winthrop has increased services for students who have served in the military, including becoming a “Yellow Ribbon” school, which means it provides financial aid above what’s available under the G.I. Bill.
Winthrop also has embraced a student-run veterans support organization, provides special parking for Purple Heart Award recipients, and operates a lounge and study center for students who are veterans or on active military duty.
Last year, on the 9/11 anniversary, a group of anonymous Winthrop students created a large chalk mural on Scholar’s Walk – a pathway in the center of campus – to remember those who lost their lives.
And last fall, Winthrop hosted a Veterans Day ceremony on campus, during which students read the names of 277 service members from South Carolina and North Carolina who were killed in action during the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
York Technical College also recently has upped its attention towards student veterans by opening a special computer lab, study area and lounge.
York Tech hosts regular guest speakers in the student veteran space, including those who offer counseling services, academic tips and advice on how to maximize military veteran benefits.
While Comstock considers herself to have a “highly tolerant worldview,” she wrote on her blog, finding something suitable to say to the student’s critical email was difficult.
“All that initially came to mind was something a university president shouldn’t put in writing,” she wrote.
The student’s email was a reminder, Comstock said, of why universities need incentives to become military-friendly institutions.
She referenced the American Council on Education’s online “Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions.”
Before arriving at Winthrop earlier this year, Comstock worked for the higher education advocacy group that has been lobbying colleges since World War II to grant veterans some academic course credit for their military experience.
ACE’s toolkit includes tips on how colleges can accommodate veterans in ways that include offering mental health services, priority class registration and tuition aid.
Winthrop already provides some of those recommended resources.
Along with many staff members already working to improve Winthrop’s support for veterans, Comstock has pushed for the university to complete a survey that could lead the campus to be recognized as a “Best for Vets” school.
That title is given by the Military Times, a privately owned news source for service members and their families.
In 2013, no South Carolina university made the 68-school list.
To make the “Best for Vets” list, schools must qualify on indicators such as graduation rates, student loan default rates, academic help for veterans and relaxed residency requirements that would waive out-of-state tuition for service members.
A separate online ranking of schools by Victory Media Inc. listed nearly one-third of S.C. schools as “military-friendly,” including four University of South Carolina campuses, Clemson University, Newberry College and Coastal Carolina University.
The company’s website states that the “military-friendly” honor is given to the top 20 percent of schools that offer the best experience to military students.
Those involved with Winthrop’s student veterans organization have said the university could become more military-friendly by expanding its ROTC program and adding an EMT or nursing degree program.
Many veterans returning from deployment pursue a nursing degree because they’ve gained military medic experience but can’t be licensed without further certification.
Making Winthrop more military-friendly will be a process, Comstock said, but the college is moving toward improving its offerings for veterans.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068