Acknowledging the veterans of Stevens

The military history of Stevens Institute of Technology can be dated back to the 19th century, with Edwin A. Stevens contributing much to the design and construction of ironclad vessels for the United States Navy. His passing willed for the creation of Stevens, a place that would soon become one of the top engineering universities in the country. With the recent passing of Veterans Day, it is important to note the strong influence that the military has had on the institute and what the university is doing to support veterans interested in obtaining a Stevens education.

For a long time, Stevens has served as the forefront of innovation for the military. Davidson Laboratory has had strong Naval ties; many of the technologies and advancements made in coastal engineering can be attributed to those who work at Davidson. The Experimental Towing Tank (not to be confused with the maneuvering basin on Hudson Street) proved to play an integral part during World War II, as the lab was primarily serving the American war effort.

Stevens has extended its services and innovation to all realms of the military and is committed to educating those who have served. The Stevens Veterans Office was formally reactivated in 2008 and has, according to Marine Veteran and Academic Director of the Stevens Veterans Office Dr. Donald Lombardi, helped over 100 veterans or veteran-dependent individuals receive an education from Stevens.

The Stevens Veterans Office is maintained primarily through Dean of Student Development and Enrichment Programs Deborah Berkley and Dr. Donald Lombardi, the Faculty Liasion. The Office is supplemented with the help of Mia Ellis, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Transfer Coordinator, Amanda Mendez, Assistant Director of Domestic Recruitment for Graduate Admissions, and Michelle Patrón, the Assistant Director of Student Financial Services.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers higher education and training benefits to veterans and their families who served in the military after September 11, 2001. Individuals who served an aggregate period of 36 months active duty are entitled to 36 months of education, at the expense of the government. There is a catch. “The level of funding is equivalent to your home state’s tuition,” said Dr. Lombardi. For a veteran from New Jersey, the government would be obligated to pay an amount equivalent to Rutger’s tuition. Stevens, as a private university, would not fall under this category. However, veterans can pursue private higher education via the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The Yellow Ribbon Program is a provision under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It is available for degree-granting institutions such as Stevens and provides for the Department of Veterans Affairs to partially or fully fund tuitions that exceed the established parameters set under the bill. Because Stevens is not a public university, veterans have often come through the university via the Yellow Ribbon Program because of its financial benefits.

Stevens Institute of Technology, in addition to being one of the top-ranking institutes for engineering and return-on-investment, can also boast that it was the first school of its category to receive the Yellow Ribbon designation from the United States Government in the New York and New Jersey Metropolitan Area.

Currently, there are 44 total veterans on campus, 22 of which are students. A majority of the students are in graduate programs, but many of the undergraduate veterans who have passed through Stevens have esteemed track records. Marine Sergeant Ben Choe is one such example. As an engineering management student, Choe was the 2011 recipient of the Student Worker of the Year Award for his exemplary work in the Stevens State of New Jersey Healthcare Grant Program. Ryan Bridge, now an Associate at Jefferies and Company, was a rifleman and squad leader in the Marine Corps. While at Stevens, he boasted a 3.8 GPA and was a two-time NCAA Division III All-American and Academic-All American wrestler. The list of veterans’ accolades goes on and on.

A student’s path to Stevens does not always stem from high school, as many of the university’s successful student-veterans have shown. In an attempt to better educate the student body about the university’s veteran services, The Stute reached out to several of the veterans on campus to hear how their experiences in the military paved the way towards Stevens.

Dr. Donald Lombardi, Faculty Liasion of the Stevens Veterans Office

Dr. Donald Lombardi is currently an Industry Associate Professor in the School of Business. After skipping a year of high school, Lombardi entered Fordham University as a 17-year-old. Dr. Lombardi was intrigued by the Marine Corps Officer Program as he entered his sophomore year, and enlisted in the last year of the draft. He attended officer training bootcamp in the summers and was the youngest 2nd Lieutenant to be commissioned in the 1970s at only 20 years old. “This position came with a lot of responsibility,” said Lombardi. He served in an elite unit as a Communications Officer and was in a position that demanded leadership. He gave five years of active duty, and applied his GI Bill benefits to his graduate degrees. Dr. Lombardi is most proud of the GED Proficiency Program he developed while working in Human Affairs. “I developed a program for Marines who dropped out high school and wanted to get their GED,” said Lombardi. This program, as well as his originally-designed Base Community Relations Program, are still in use today. Following his years in the military, Lombardi worked at two major corporations in various roles. Prior to Stevens, Lombardi was a professor and the University Director of Planning and Development at Seton Hall University and is the author of 12 books on healthcare management. “The Marine Corps and Stevens Students are very similar,” said Lombardi. “They share four important attributes: pride, accountability, commitment and trust.” Lombardi currently serves as the Faculty Liaison in the Stevens Veterans Office.

Ralph Giffin, Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives 

Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives Ralph Giffin went into the military after high school with the intent of using his GI Bill  benefits to his college degree. He entered the Navy, and was involved in submarine service for six years. He worked on two different submarines, and while deployed, played a role in acoustic intelligence. “Acoustic intelligence was employed to identify ships, other submarines, and other items that made noise in the water. Our purpose was to better understand these items’ capabilities and operations.” Deployments were often long; the submarine was often deployed for periods of 6 months, and Giffin remembers a period of 110 days without resurfacing. He remembers his time on the submarines were long stretches of boredom “punctuated with times of sheer terror.” However, he distinctly remembers the people he worked with and the cohesiveness they displayed amongst each other in those stressful times. “It was as if you become different people,” said Giffin. “Everyone would come together from the boring times [to] rig the ship for quiet and everyone [did] their job like an orchestra.” After his six years in the Navy, Giffin went on to work for IBM. He ultimately gained a position as Vice President at Lockeed Martin in Orlando when a colleague asked him if he’d like to be on the Board of Advisors for the new Systems Engineering program at Stevens. Instead of pursuing a transfer to Texas, Giffin came to Stevens and has been here for the past 10 years. “The military gives [you] leadership at very young age. Being responsible for parts of submarine [was] a heady task for a 20-year-old and that stayed with me.” When he interfaces with the Stevens Veteran’s Office, he usually takes an initiative to interact with the student veterans, especially former submariners.

Jason Fersa 

Jason Fersa hails from New Jersey and is currently studying Mechanical Engineering. He graduated high school in 2006 and ended up moving to Orlando, Florida. In May 2007, Fersa enlisted in the Navy and traveled to Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp. After his training, Fersa was stationed in Jacksonville, where he trained for his position. “I worked on the P-3 Orion, an anti-submarine aircraft,” said Fersa. He was in Jacksonville for four years and was deployed twice in that time period. “Wherever the aircraft went, I went,” said Fersa. While enlisted, he was deployed to Sicily and Djibouti, Africa, each for six months. Djibouti is right on the border with Somalia, and one of their missions included searching for Somalian pirates. Fersa’s time in Florida ended in 2011, after which he moved to Southern Maryland for two years. While there, he worked on a total of 4 different aircrafts, includingthe P-3 and H-60 helicopters. Amid his work for the Navy, Fersa found time to work on his Associate’s Degree in Engineering. He had begun taking classes in Jacksonville and finished his degree in Maryland in 2013. After his contract ended, Fersa knew he wanted to attain his Bachelor’s in Engineering degree. “I applied to three different schools in the area: Stevens, NJIT, and NYU Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn,” said Fersa. “I was accepted to all three, and after I did some more research, I knew Stevens was the right place for me.” Fersa attends Stevens via the Yellow Ribbon Program, so the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and Stevens are collectively paying the difference between NJ in-state and Stevens’ tuition. He entered Stevens in January of 2014 and took 16 credits each for the spring, summer and fall 2014 semesters and will be done with his Bachelor’s at the end of next semester. Fersa believes his military background better prepared him for Stevens’ rigorous curriculum. “When I was in the military, I was always on call, even when I was not at work,” said Fersa. “The same level of dedication is needed [at Stevens], and that carried forward with me.” Fersa is considering a position at NAVAIR, which serves the nation and the Navy by developing, acquiring, and supporting naval aeronautical and related technology systems. “Most of what I did in the Navy was regulated by NAVAIR, “said Fersa. “It would be interesting to work on the opposite side.”