Student Veteran Recognized for Cross-Country Ride

August 5, following a cross-country cycling tradition, Kiersten Downs dips her front tire into the reflecting pool on the Washington DC mall at the end of her journey. Her journey started June 2 with a dip of her rear tire in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Biking USA

August 5, following a cross-country cycling tradition, Kiersten Downs dips her front tire into the reflecting pool on the Washington DC mall at the end of her journey. Her journey started June 2 with a dip of her rear tire in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: Biking USA

An Air Force veteran and anthropology doctoral student who spent her summer Biking across America was named Student Veteran of the Year by the Student Veterans of America organization at its annual conference in Scottsdale, AZ on Saturday evening.

The National SVA recognized University of South Florida student veteran Kiersten Downs, a former president of the USF Student Veterans Association, for her cross-country trip that raised $50,000 for the organization as well as raising awareness of student veterans’ challenges and successes in higher education.

The current USF SVA President Ray Mollison accepting the award for Downs who was unable to attend the ceremony.

USF SVA President Ray Mollison (right) accepting the Student Veteran of the Year award for Kiersten Downs.

USF SVA President Ray Mollison (right) accepting the Student Veteran of the Year award for Kiersten Downs.

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How Civilians Can Help Returning Veterans

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Ray Mollison, president of the USF Student Veterans Association, Bobbie O’Brien, WUSF reporter, and Pat Schweikart, an SVA officer and Marine Reservist.

On what was the most pleasant and least humid Saturday in the Tampa Bay area since April, some chose to spend a few hours inside.

The Friends of the St. Petersburg Library gathered in the auditorium of the main library to learn about the challenges and successes of the newest generation of veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Student Veterans President at USF Ray Mollison and SVA officer Patrick Schweikart served as their guides.

They said the SVA’s mission is to serve student veterans but also to reach out to the community.

Their outreach includes helping to build homes for injured veterans through Homes for Our Troops, joint exercise like runs and cycling and social outings with Team Red, White and Blue  and making presentations to public groups.

One of the questions they fielded was what civilians could do to get involved and help veterans. Ray started it off with two suggestions:

  1. Participate in Team Red, White and Blue events like the cycling he did this morning. He said civilians are more than welcome to become part of the team.
  2. In-state tuition for veterans is the top priority for the USF student veterans. Their chapter has tried for several years to get it passed by the legislature. Last year, the bill never made it out of a senate committee. Rep. Kathleen Peters and Sen. Jack Latvala are co-sponsoring veterans in-state tuition bill for the 2014 session. So, Ray suggested they could help lobby lawmakers this year to get legislation passed.

There are a myriad of options to offer help to a veteran. Here are a few ideas:

  • Join the Got Your 6 program – it offers the community ways to share in the sacrifice and show appreciation for those who have served like becoming a mentor or providing care packages for homeless veterans.
  • Wreaths Across America – The group of veterans who fund-raise for the wreaths at Bushnell National Cemetery are trying to get enough donations for 10,000 wreaths in 2013. They also need volunteers to lay the wreaths before the holidays.
  • Support the Troops Inc. – Volunteer to help put together packages for troops deployed overseas.
  • Honor Flight West Coast Florida – Volunteer to escort a World War II veteran for a day of touring national memorials in Washington D.C.

If you have an idea on how civilians in your community can help veterans and military families, write a comment or send me an email at bobrien@wusf.org.

A final thank you to the USF SVA and Friends of the St. Petersburg Library for including me in an informative afternoon that offered some laughs and some tasty lemon bars.

Student Vets Bring Leadership, Fitness and Fun to Campus

Members of the USF Student Veterans Association and Team Red, White and Blue at a recent event. From the left, Ray Mollison, Amanda Lynn Alexander, Amanda Pasquale-Spellicy, Chris Rhode, Kelly Knigge, Patrick Stephen Schweickart and Oliver Lima. Credti: SVA/RWB

Members of the USF Student Veterans Association and Team Red, White and Blue at a recent event. From the left, Ray Mollison, Amanda Lynn Alexander, Amanda Pasquale-Spellicy, Chris Rhode, Kelly Knigge, Patrick Stephen Schweickart and Oliver Lima. Credti: SVA/RWB

It happened in a big way at the end of World War II – soldiers headed home from the frontlines and into the classroom.

Again, the number of veterans on college campuses around the nation is expected to increase as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Some 2,200 students are currently using their VA education benefits to attend the University of South Florida said Ray Mollison, president of the USF Student Veterans Association (SVA). Of those, 1,700 are active veteran students and 1,200 are on the Tampa campus.

Mollison, an Army veteran who did two tours in Iraq, said his time in the military taught him leadership, especially when he was deployed.

He is now focusing those leadership skills on his goal to dramatically increase the number of student veterans who participate in the SVA.

Mollison said about a dozen or so student veterans regularly attend meetings. His goal is to reach dozens if not hundreds of those existing veteran students.

“We do not believe that we have reached our potential,” Mollison said. “We want to really get everyone to recognize, especially the student veterans, that you’re not alone.”

He said the SVA can help veterans integrate into civilian life and college classes.

“We’re going to make your college experience fun,” Mollison said. Continue reading

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