20 Miles and Many Lessons

One of our country’s more shocking statistics is that 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Last year it was worse, with 22 veterans ended their lives by their own hands every day. This public health crisis is frightening, extraordinarily sad, and simply unacceptable.

A veteran student told me about the suicide rate and what our local college veterans club was doing about it – taking part in the 2017 Ruck March – a 20 mile hike carrying 20 pounds. I agreed to participate to show my support for our veterans, Wright’s veterans club, and to raise awareness about veteran suicide. If you have a chance, please take a look and consider ways that you can provide support. Your help will be noticed and it will make a difference. We all have to do more than stand and applaud at sporting events. Acknowledgement is fine – and contributions and care are even better.

The Ruck March was a tremendous experience. It was also, personally, a learning experience in unexpected ways. I am very grateful that I participated.

More than 12,000 students cross the doors at my college every semester and nearly 1,000 people work there. That’s 13,000 people engaged in a collective endeavor for which I, as the college’s president, bear some responsibility and accountability. If we’re to be successful, we always have to keep the student perspective foremost in our minds. Toward that end I do what I can to talk with students regularly: meals with students, advising student groups, lots and lots of meetings, listening to complaints, having students participate in decision making, and attending many events. These are all the normal things that college presidents do to interact with students. Missing is unstructured time to talk, ask questions, and listen.

The six plus hour hike for the veterans was one of the best opportunities I have ever enjoyed in decades working as an educator to talk with students. There was nothing transactional to the walk, no hidden agenda. Better still, Wright student veterans were joined by others who cared: fellow veterans, family and friends, and other administrators who work at the college. Everyone who participated had a connection to Wright’s veterans, a worthwhile perspective, and stories to share. Particularly moving were the accounts of veterans wrestling with mental health issues and support. Really good people were on the march and they were willing to talk and share with me.

We talked about the military and college, about choices, what folks were looking for and what they found. I learned about different journeys, met and unfulfilled expectations, and ways that communities – in the military, in the neighborhood, and at college – affected their lives. I heard about good classes and bad classes, professors who made them think and work, and the people who were important along the way. We talked about student protests at Berkeley, student engagement at Wright, and how civilian students relate to veterans. We talked about privilege and they shared their hopes for the future. I heard how different stakeholders “own” the college and why. And I answered whatever questions I could, from how I ended up as a college president to whether my feet hurt (they didn’t – but my shoulders? Ouch. Thankfully a veteran gave me tips on how to pack a ruck for the future).

I learned so much that day from men and women who had served in our military – people whose life choices I am predetermined to admire – and the friends and colleagues who walked with them. They have my gratitude and appreciation.

If you have a chance to stop, put down the phone, and spend some time with people like these, you’ll benefit as well.

David Potash

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