Meet Cody Russell, a former U.S. Army veteran turned student, whose journey epitomizes the incredible potential and exciting opportunities that are offered for those at UT transitioning from service member to scholar.
Not long ago, Russell entered the first floor of Hodges Library and made his way into the Veterans Success Center (VSC), a department within UT’s Division of Student Success (DSS) that offers assistance and guidance to active duty service members, veterans, reservists, guardsmen, and family members using their VA educational benefits.
As someone looking for an opportunity, the VSC became a catalyst for Russell; illuminating his path towards newfound purpose and a deeper understanding of his own capabilities.
Through unexpected encounters, inspiring mentors, and moments of introspection, Russell’s first chapter in his educational path at UT has left an indelible mark on his life and ignited a flame of inspiration that will continue to serve him as he continues forward with his academic journey.
Having encountered a veterans’ program at a different institution that failed to live up to his expectations, Russell’s sentiments were tinged with ambivalence. However, a renewed sense of hope blossomed within him as he embarked upon his journey at Rocky Top.
Russell decided to give the Veterans Impact Program (VIP) a try after speaking with Tom Cruise, assistant director at UT’s Veterans Success Center, and a former student veteran. Cruise assured Russell that the one-semester cohort program – created to support incoming student veterans during their first-year transition to UT – had a lot to offer.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to be here at UT,” said Russell, 29, who moved with his wife to Knoxville more than a year ago. “I just wanted to get back into school and finish out my degree. But when I got here I saw this was much more than I realized.”
Cruise explained to Russell that the VIP offered a transition course designed specifically for veterans, customized individual academic plans, academic coaching, social events, and peer learning assistance. There is also a financial incentive given to participants at the end of their first semester, and at the end of their first year if they successfully complete all program requirements.
“The Veteran Impact Program was designed to aid in that challenging time of transition from military service into higher education,” said Cruise. “We are honored to provide such a unique service to our veterans, not only academically, but financially and socially as well.”
In the face of doubt and uncertainty, Russell went from questioning the path ahead to finding assurance and renewed confidence, as these tools provided by the VIP not only helped support his academic journey but also offer tangible rewards that further fueled his determination to excel.
“I talked with Tom and Tom was very adamant on ‘This is a lot bigger than you probably think. We have a lot going on. We have a lot of resources,’ Russell said. “Not very many universities have this kind of program where you can really integrate with something. Now that I’ve been here. I feel like I’m a part of UT. I’m not just here for a degree. I’m here for a lot more than a degree now.”
A Place To Be Vulnerable
Russell dedicated eight years of his life to serving in the army, with four years stationed at Fort Drum in New York and another four years at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
While he still maintains contact with the friends he made during his military service, the reality is that they are not readily accessible for daily conversations or face-to-face interactions.
That’s precisely why the Veterans Success Center holds such significance for Russell. It provides a haven where he can foster connections and engage with individuals who understand the unique experiences and challenges of being a veteran.
In the company of kindred spirits who share similar life experiences, he finds solace and understanding. These connections provide a unique opportunity for empathy, where others can relate to his journey, offering support and compassion in times of shared challenges or emotions.
As a sophomore studying business management, Russell also has a (full-time) job with Dell Technologies and is a husband and father.
The memory of his initial visit to the Pilot Company Veteran Student Lounge at the center still lingers in his mind, as he fondly reminisces about the overwhelming warmth he experienced. The bustling atmosphere filled with friendly faces who warmly embraced him upon his arrival, instantly making him feel like part of a close-knit community.
“Within the first week, I was already walls down. I’m having fun talking, cutting up with people who have been through the same stuff I have,” Russell said. “I feel like I can really let some walls down and talk with people and be vulnerable. I know that I’m not alone. If I do need to talk about it, I have people here, and that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Acknowledging the occasional loneliness and isolation that can accompany working from home, Russell said he will seek solace and camaraderie at the center. It serves as a serene sanctuary where he can diligently accomplish his tasks, all the while basking in the company of fellow veterans.
While the option still exists, he no longer finds himself searching through the sprawl library for a quiet spot, lost amidst a sea of fellow students.
By having a dedicated space of his own, he experiences a sense of inclusiveness that can be particularly elusive for someone who identifies as a non-traditional student. Despite having afternoon classes, he would arrive on campus early in the morning, relishing the opportunity to stay throughout the day.
“I think a lot of veterans will probably just come in and go to class and then leave if there’s not an environment like this,” Russell said. “I would sit here and hang out with other veterans all day, and just knowing that they’re veterans has helped me.”
Just Use It
Russell shares the benefits of the Veterans Success Center with other veterans as much as he can. One of those benefits is the leadership team made up of Director Jayetta Rogers, Veterans Academic Coach Kianna Zolkiewicz, and, of course, Cruise.
“All three of them have been absolutely fantastic,” Russell said. “I don’t think there’s one thing that’s on campus that they don’t have a hand in that they can assist us with.”
By encouraging other veterans to utilize the VSC Russell aims to ensure that they, too, can benefit from the expertise and support offered by this exceptional team, as well as the welcoming and calming atmosphere within the center that contributed to the overall well-being and comfort of veterans who seek its services.
“Empowering our veterans to succeed academically is not just a duty, but an honor,” said Zolkiewicz. “The Veterans Success Center stands as a testament to our commitment in supporting those who have served. Together, we create a bridge between their military experience and their educational journey, ensuring they excel and thrive in their pursuit of knowledge.”
Since the program was implemented in August of 2022, the VIP has seen a persistence rate of 99% from Fall ‘22 to Spring ‘23 among its students, as well as a collective higher GPA among the cohort during that same time span.
Russell’s efforts to share the benefits of the Veterans Success Center reflect his deep belief in its transformative power. Through his advocacy, he hopes to inspire other veterans to take advantage of the center’s resources and help foster a sense of community, support, and academic excellence among all those who have served our country.