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January 29, 2015

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t

Written by: James Schmeling

Photo of James SchmelingHenry Ford is credited with saying that “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.” But what he didn’t say is that sometimes when you think you can’t, it’s because you don’t have all the information.

There are a growing number of veterans transitioning out of the military (compared to the last 10 years) as we draw down our force size while wars wrap up and various budget crises or reallocation play out. They are trying to determine what their future holds. And there are some significant issues related to knowing what they need to know for their futures.

Many veterans didn’t go to college right out of high school – some didn’t think it was possible, some thought they weren’t “college material” – my high school advisor told me I wasn’t, and I ended up graduating in the top of my undergrad class after my Air Force service, and in the top of my law school class. And I was a junior enlisted member, a Sergeant in the Air Force.

What changed that made me “college material”? That I learned much in the Air Force during my year of classes when I entered the Air Force. That I practiced those skills and learned even more in each role I held in the Air Force. That I learned about further educational opportunities. That I had some visibility into college from same-age peers. And visibility into law school (thanks, amusingly, to Scott Turow’s One-L as well as my divorce attorney – ask me about these sometime). I still missed some things – I didn’t know how important internships were in law school summers and instead crammed four classes into each of two summers and graduated quickly. Fortunately I had a great opportunity to take a job and start a career in academia (as a professional staff member, not a faculty member – another area I lacked knowledge in, thinking professional staff and faculty were equally regarded). I love my career – three research centers into my career in academia I think I have much to share with both students and colleagues.

But, we don’t know what we don’t know. And that’s understandable. But what’s not understandable is why we don’t make extraordinary efforts to inform others on what they need to know for their post-service careers. We need to share with others what we know about their interests. We need to develop their latent interests. We need to tell them they can achieve what they had no idea they could. And, we need to share with them aspirational goals they had no idea that their interests and talents could align to. Far too many have important Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) talents, but have no idea that these are in demand or how to develop those talents into careers. Careers that pay phenomenally well! That match their salaries, benefits, and expectations from their military careers. The junior enlisted members with mad skills in computer science and cybersecurity or the aircraft engine mechanics who can build careers in advanced manufacturing. The electronics techs who can build and maintain the advanced fabs that will build our IT infrastructure, or architect the networks that we need for our advanced infrastructure.

The folks who built power and data networks during our nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan are ready to build the advanced fiber networks we need in our rural municipalities, or building out the capacity in our urban areas – whether part of large conglomerates or small municipal utilities. Sure, we’re in competitive capitalism, but it’s pretty clear that the competition is ignoring many areas, and that those areas have a lot to contribute given the opportunity.

We have technical writers, trainers and instructors in service who, post-service, can contribute to knowledge transfer in civilian training courses, community colleges, or who have degrees and can teach at the secondary and post-secondary levels if they knew the paths into those careers. It won’t take so much to share what those paths are, and we need to do it for our veterans, their families, and our country. We’re slipping in some ways (whatever you think, it’s clear that some of our educational systems are lacking – our veterans are as well or better educated than many in our communities, and they’re ready to keep serving either in careers or by gaining further education and careers).

So, how does this tie to academic intrapreneurship? Simple. We built an infrastructure to do this – we built capacity to compete for and win contracts to deliver training and education. We teach and train entrepreneurship to veterans and families – over 28,000 to date. That’s over 28,000 people with the tools to start small businesses, or build large ventures. To hire their peers. To contribute to the economy. We built capacity internally to develop and deliver curricula to them. We do our own research on how veterans pursue higher education successfully and share that with both veterans and institutions of higher education, as well as with policy makers and executive agencies. We’re building the triumvirate of education, the private sector, and government to the advantage of our respective institutions and the nation. We built collaborations with the private sector on employment and careers. We’re developing supply chain diversity initiatives to create demand for veteran-owned business products and services. We’re using the power of academic intrapreneurship to build systems to deliver better post-service life course outcomes to veterans and families, while building the resources to continue to develop and refine these systems and programs. We use the infrastructure we have to deliver for our university – for faculty, staff and students, and for our stakeholders.

We know we can, and we’re aiming to help others learn they can. That way they will think they can – and they will be right. And they’ll have the information they need to succeed.

James Schmeling, J.D., co-founded the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, and was appointed as its first managing director. He currently supervises the Programs mission area, which includes transition, employment, education and training programs.

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