Today’s guest post is written by Barry Brodsky. He is the Directory of the Veterans Upward Bound Program at UMass Boston. Barry is also a Screenwriting Instructor at Boston University, an Instructor of Writing for Stage and Screen at Lesley University and the Coordinator for the Screenwriting Certificate Program at Emerson College. At Over My Shoulder Foundation, we are delighted to introduce this guest post by Barry. He mentors countless veterans at the VUB program, helping them to obtain education and work after active military duty. This Veteran’s Day, we honor all the Veterans who have fought for our country and those like Barry that help mentor our Veterans. -Dawn Carroll, Over My Shoulder Foundation Co-Founder
I came to work at the Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program at U.Mass-Boston in January, 2002. I had been teaching writing classes to adults and high school students for about 12 years, and as a veteran myself, the idea of helping veterans get ready for college was very appealing. VUB offers classes, tutoring, and other services all aimed at getting veterans into college. My job would be to ‘counsel’ them through a 16 week semester, help them decide on a future educational strategy, assist them in filling out the necessary paperwork to apply for financial aid, review what veterans benefits they may have, and generally be there to help them adjust as they try to fit academics into their lives.
As we prepared for a weeklong orientation, a Vietnam Veteran I’m going to call Al came to the office and filled out an application. I interviewed him and found that he suffered from serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam nearly 40 years earlier. He had tried school before and wasn’t successful. He participated in group therapy sessions at the Boston Vet Center, a wonderful counseling program for combat veterans funded by the VA. He said he was interested in studying History and Religion, and was anxious to succeed this time. When he saw the dates of the orientation, however, he blanched: “That’s the week of my annual family reunion. Everyone gets together in Alabama once a year. It’s the only time I get to see my cousins and my nieces and nephews. Is it alright if I don’t come to the Orientation?” I smiled and nodded, “sure, that’s no problem. You can start the program in the fall instead.” He thought I misunderstood him: “No, I meant can I start the program the first week of classes.” I dropped my smile and leaned a bit toward him and said, “You can’t do that Al. Everyone has to go to Orientation.” “But I don’t want to miss the reunion.” I smiled again: “So don’t miss it. And you can start with us in the fall.” Al leaned back, clearly facing a dilemma. I told him he had a week to think it over and he could let me know what he wanted to do.
A few days later I arrived at work to find Al using one of our computers to check his email. I greeted him and he told me he had decided to skip the family reunion and come to the program. I applauded his decision, and told him I knew it wasn’t an easy one to make. He sighed, “It really hurts not to go, but I know my education can’t wait. I need to get going on it.”
Al completed our program and enrolled in U.Mass-Boston. About three years later he transferred to a Theological Institute where he eventually earned his degree. Today he is a Baptist Minister with a Boston congregation. Part of his ministry is visiting families of victims of violence to offer support and spiritual counseling. His many years dealing with his own grief over the extreme levels of violence he witnessed in war, he says, makes him uniquely qualified to help others begin this difficult journey.
Since Al walked through our doors we have had more than 1200 veterans attend Veterans Upward Bound at UMass-Boston. Nearly half do not complete the program; they aren’t really ready for the academic rigor, they have too many conflicts in their lives, they aren’t fully committed to moving forward with their education, or they simply have too many personal problems to concentrate on their futures. Many, however, return to try again. Some drop out three or four times before being able to complete the program. Of those who do complete, more than eighty percent go on to some kind of post-secondary educational program.
In 2004, I became the Director of the program. While I spend a lot of time managing our shrinking budget (cut for the first time in 35 years last year) and trying to keep up with the mountains of data and paperwork that federally-funded programs require, I still get the greatest satisfaction when graduates stop by to visit and tell me of their achievements. And once in a while, when Al stops by to say hello and I ask him to ‘put in a good word’ for me with the man (or woman) upstairs, he smiles and tells me he always does. It’s then that I know that in many ways, I’m truly blessed.