/ / / Jared Lyon Q&A

Jared Lyon Q&A

Jared Lyon

President & CEO

Student Veterans of America

Jared Lyon was appointed President and CEO of Student Veterans of America (SVA) on January 4, 2016, overseeing all aspects of the organization. He initially joined the professional staff of SVA in 2014 as the chief development officer and executive vice president of operations. In this role Jared forged critical partnerships and secured record grant funding for SVA. Named National Student Veteran of the Year by SVA in 2011, Lyon has come full circle to lead the organization he credits with his educational success.

Before joining SVA, Lyon was the national program manager at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University (SU) for the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) and EBV-Families (EBV-F), providing small business management and entrepreneurship instruction free of charge in workshops held at eight universities annually.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Lyon served as a submariner and diver, taking part in multiple deployments around the world in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Upon leaving the Navy with an honorable discharge, he worked for Northrop Grumman Corporation in Melbourne, Florida as an electronic systems administrator while completing his associate's degree at Brevard Community College. He then managed Florida operations for the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team for three seasons.

Lyon returned to higher education, earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Florida State University (FSU) in December 2011. As an undergraduate he served as president of both the school’s SVA chapter and Sigma Phi Epsilon National Fraternity chapter. He was a founder and co-chairman of the Student Veteran Film Festival, and served on the search committee to identify a Veterans Center Director for FSU. Lyon was surgeon of District 2 for the Florida Department of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and junior vice commander for VFW Post 3308 in Tallahassee, Florida. He was inducted in FSU’s first class of “Thirty Under 30” at its Young Alumni Awards Reception in 2012.

Lyon holds a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where he is an adjunct professor at the Whitman School of Management. He continues to serve as a board member of the Florida State University Student Veterans Film Festival and Veterans Center Advisory Board.

Q: How and why did you become an advocate for student veterans as Student Veterans of America’s President and CEO? What experience(s) influenced you the most in deciding to serve student veterans?

A: By the time I got to Florida State after separating from enlisted service, I was 28 years old. I had finished my associates degree, so I’m now a transferred junior. When I showed up on campus, the first two weeks I felt like a fish out of water. I was on a campus with some 40,000 undergraduates, mostly between the ages of 18 to 22, and I was just a little bit older, a different set of life experiences, and a college junior. Those first two weeks I didn't really feel like I fit in or that I belonged.

One day on campus I happened to walk by an advertisement for my SVA chapter at Florida State. Really, the rest is history for me. It was through my SVA chapter that I started to gain an understanding as to the needs of veterans in higher education, but also all the success that they were having.

As a person, I've realized that I'm motivated by my ability to impact others for good. At the time I didn't know what that meant, but through my first foray into advocacy work as a student veteran at Florida State, I realized that I could help student veterans and help other people, which gave me the idea as an undergraduate at Florida State that someday I would like to run a veteran-serving nonprofit. That inspired me to pursue my master’s in public administration with a focus in MGO management at Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

My first experience working at a nonprofit was the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, and so I've been trying to prepare myself for this position since I was an undergraduate at Florida State in 2010. This is really kind of a dream come true for me!

Q: How is SVA positioned in the veteran service community to affect change and to what extent does SVA want to influence the well-being of all veterans?

A: When you look at what SVA is now, we really consider ourselves to be a higher education nonprofit whose focus is serving veterans in higher education, i.e. student veterans. Really, we are a student-centric chapter-based organization. Our passions are veterans and military-connected students. To that end, we are focused, as an organization, on what we like to refer to as “the life cycle of a student veteran.” And so SVA is here to support; helping veterans to, through, and beyond higher education.

We do that through three simple, strategic focuses. The first is informed decision-making, the second is support through peer-based mentor groups, such as our chapters, and the third is the “so what” of finishing your degree, which is transition to career and beyond. We support all of that through research, which we believe is actionable research, through programs and services, and then through our advocacy efforts. We really are the voice of the student veteran here in Washington DC and across the nation.

Nearly two-thirds of transitioning servicemembers are first-generation college students just like myself. To that end, we don't necessarily have some of the same familiar affinity structures to make some important decisions.

To the extent that SVA can be there for veterans on the front end when they're making those choices (not necessarily telling them which school to go to, but making sure that they have the tools to make that decision for themselves and for their families) and then being supportive while they’re in school and then successfully transitioning to the next phase of their life, which is really career and beyond. That's how we’re able to affect the overall wellbeing of this generation of veterans and all generations moving forward.

Q: In February, SVA announced the results of their National Veteran Education Success Tracker measuring the academic outcomes of GI Bill students, what were some of the key findings from the research?

A: We’re really proud of the National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST). NVEST is a first of its kind public-private partnership to study the impact of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The results of this research are simply remarkable. We had this peer-reviewed by researchers at Syracuse University (IVMF) and Purdue University (Military Family Research Institute).

I think there is this perception that veterans are not actually going to college as much on the GI Bill because with the Post-9/11 GI Bill you have the option for transferability. So most people think that maybe it’s more the dependents that are going. Well, our research shows there are 1.3 million veterans using the GI Bill for higher ed, and only about 170,000 of those are dependents. That means a little over 1.1 million are actually veterans themselves! The next assumption is that veterans, if they are in fact the ones using the benefits, might not be going for traditional post-secondary education and maybe seeking, perhaps a vocational or certificate training versus post-secondary education.

Through NVEST we know that actually less than 5 percent of GI Bill recipients are seeking vocational or certificate training. We also know that the majority of veterans do choose not-for-profit public and private schools versus proprietary institutions for higher learning. The next assumption some people make is that military students are all sort of “underwater basket weaving” majors. That’s also not true as well. We know through NVEST that the top three majors for veterans in higher education right now are business, STEM, and health-related fields.

Arguably, those are some of the most marketable degree fields in America, and NVEST shows us that the majority of students are pursuing either a bachelor's or higher in their education. Separately, our annual census survey tells us that the national GPA in this country right now is a respectable 3.11, but for student veterans it’s a 3.35. So by the standard measure of academic performance, such as the GPA, we know that student veterans are out performing non-student veterans, basically. And graduation rates and success rates, which are derived from NVEST, are showing a population that is doing remarkably well.

If you look at the overall success rates, for instance, it’s at 72 percent, which is higher than those that have never served in the military. I would never purport that veterans are not without their challenges in higher education, but no matter what challenge a veteran might encounter in higher education, we are often triumphant in the face of the those challenges. The headlines for veterans in higher education shouldn't be depicting a “struggling, not graduating, lesser-than student.” In our opinion, the headline should be that student veterans are among the most successful students, they’re talent hiding in plain sight.

Q: How has this research influenced the narrative around student veterans in higher education and what was most surprising for you to learn from the results?

A: What I was surprised about before NVEST existed is that the research that I had been able to find on my own largely told a different story. It told the story of veterans that were struggling and not succeeding, and so NVEST is really a full look at the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which no one’s been able to do up until this point. What you got from that was data that told of a story that I knew was true, but didn’t have the conclusive evidence for. But I'll tell you, I traveled around the country last year visiting colleges and universities

nationwide where we have SVA chapters and every time I talked to a student veteran they were fired up to tell me about the success that they’re having in higher education and all that they were accomplishing and proud of.

They did not subscribe to that notion that veterans are somehow damaged or broken. You see them succeeding every day. What I said to them was, “Stand by. The research is coming, and we will have the evidence definitively when we conclude this.” I would back that up by the sort of groundswell that we’ve gotten from student veterans nationwide, the student veteran chapter leaders in our chapters all over the country, and how they’ve reached out to say, “Finally. What I’ve always felt in my gut was true. The NVEST evidence confirmed that feeling for me as a student veteran.”

Q: What can leaders in the higher education community do differently starting today to better support student veterans?

A: I think, broadly, my ask to higher education is, NVEST shows you how this population is doing, and the story at the top line level is that this is a very successful student cohort. Student veterans are students first who happen to have served in the military. So think of them as students first that happen to also be veterans. It’s a part of their overall makeup. We hope that NVEST helps higher education start from the right operating position. Start from the position that this is a cohort of students who are going to be successful with the resources and tools and networks that already exist in higher education. We don’t look at this population as separate but equal. We look at this population as part of our higher education community and the stars of that community.

If we start from the right operating position knowing that student veterans are more likely to attend “good schools” than their civilian counterparts, that they’re going to be pursuing more academically rigorous degrees than their civilian counterparts, that they have performed better with GPA’s and graduation rates, then we should look to recruit them to higher education because of that. By the way, they also bring funding via the GI Bill to pay for that education. When you look across higher education there’s not a whole lot of students out there that pay sticker price.

At some schools, let’s say a private institution that is higher cost in sticker price, even when you factor in the discount rate of higher education, the GI Bill combined with the Yellow Ribbon program still pays higher than the discount rate than any other student in higher education. So not only do they have the resources to pay for their education, they are going to be the rockstar students that higher ed is desperately seeking, pursuing some of the most academically rigorous degrees. So recruit them with an enthusiasm and excitement that you’d have for any of the top students that you would look for at your institution of higher learning.

Q: You’ve stated that veterans are “talent hiding in plain sight,” what do you mean by this comment and how does it apply to leaders in the business and higher education communities?

A: When you look at the population broadly, about 50 percent of veterans in higher education are married when they go back to school. Some 47 percent have children when they're back in school, of which 14 percent are single parents. That leads to the average age of a student vet being around 28 years old. 50 percent are working full time; 25

percent working part time. These are grownups. These are truly non-traditional students. One quick note, 23 percent of graduating veterans in higher education are women veterans, which is pretty cool when you think about it because the active force duty is only between 16 to 18 percent women.

When we say “talent hiding in plain sight,” this is a population that has served their country, transitioned to higher education, is more likely to pursue a STEM business or health-related degree, better GPA's, and a higher success rate.

They’re talent hiding in plain sight because there are 100,000 college graduates from the Post-9/11 GI Bill that are graduating each and every year. When industry looks to recruit the amazing talent that exits within the veteran community, what we want folks to understand is that there are 100,000 graduating with some of the top degrees the industry is so desperately trying to find. But perhaps they haven’t had the right understanding of this population to know that there are a whole bunch of MCO’s and petty officers that are graduating with those top degrees in hand the industry needs.

By the way, they have all the amazing leadership characteristics brought with them by the military, and they’ve already sort of transitioned. They’re not one year out of transition. On average, they’re five to six years out of transition by the time they get hired. So, industry should work with their campus recruiting teams to recruit student veterans, based on the knowledge gained from NVEST that they could be finding this population who's been, really, hiding on America's college campuses nationwide.

The diversity of thought and the “lived experience” that a veteran brings to the classroom, let alone the campus community, carries forward as a leader in industry and in their communities after graduation as well. We're, as a veteran population, more civically engaged than our civilian counterparts. We are the leaders America so desperately needs, and when you combine the military service with what I refer to as the great equalizer—your college degree—there is limitless potential for this generation.

Q: As the country moves further away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how important is it to SVA to ensure the Post-9/11 GI Bill remains a viable benefit for future servicemembers?

A: The US Army Recruiting Command gets it, and they are having that conversation with high school students right now about the opportunity that military service is, and one of those opportunities is the chance for an education. At SVA we look at that as a benefit of service, if you will, and one of the concepts that we’re really working on with GI Bill is this idea of a “Forever GI Bill.” The GI Bill has been through six iterations since 1944.

We hope to find folks that are fired up about the idea of a Forever GI Bill that, by the nature of your military service, offers the opportunity for education there in perpetuity. This is an all-volunteer force. It is a good recruitment tool, and we think something that’s actually vital to national security in this all volunteer force. It’s something that we continue to keep a steady drum beat about; the concept that your service is forever linked to the opportunity for an education.

Additional Info

  • Issue: 12
  • Volume: 2
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