Student Veterans Club Answers Call of Duty

#StillServing.

For Alexander Austin, the hashtag says all that needs to be said in describing Pitt Vets.

Austin is one of more than 500 military veterans on Pitt’s campuses and the outgoing president of Pitt Vets. The group — established in 2007 to help student veterans and their families transition to college life — has evolved into a service organization, with Austin playing an integral role.

During Austin’s 2016-17 academic year tenure, the organization held a holiday toy drive, during which it donated nearly 500 items for kids at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. The group also sponsored regular events — cookouts, meditation and yoga sessions, career development seminars, networking socials, speaking engagements — that were often open to the entire Pitt community.

a group of vets surrounded by toys

Pitt Vets members also were a major presence at University-wide service events, including Pitt Make a Difference Day and Christmas Day at Pitt.

“Public service was a major part of our lives as members of the armed forces. Now as Pitt students, we continue to be devoted to America just as we were while in the military,” said Austin, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who is now pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “When people think of Pitt Vets, I want them to think of service and a commitment to our nation that doesn’t fade away just because we no longer wear a uniform.”

Pitt Vets was founded by Jay W. Sukits, who served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and is now a professor at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration. Pitt Vets became Pitt’s official chapter of the national nonprofit organization Student Veterans of America last year.

Hernandez in a suit and tie in front of the American flag“Pitt Vets has the potential to be a valuable asset for the University and Southwestern Pennsylvania as a whole,” said Edwin Hernandez, director of Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services, which oversees Pitt Vets activities. “For Pitt’s student veterans, the organization provides so many opportunities for interaction with each other and the campus community. The city benefits from having a disciplined group of professionals who are committed to contributing to the greater good of the region.”

A Pittsburgh native, Austin dreamed of joining the military since childhood. He became a crew chief for a C-130 military transport aircraft before a cancer diagnosis forced him to retire prematurely. Austin plans to graduate this December and enter the energy and environmental technology field. Of his accomplishments as president, he said, “I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made, and I’m proud that we’re leaving the organization in more than capable hands.”

The president for the 2017-18 academic year is Robert Garofalo, a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. Garofalo served in Iraq, provided humanitarian aid in Haiti and enlisted more than 230 Americans into the Marines as a recruiter stationed in central Florida. Upon retiring as a sergeant in 2014, Garofalo came to Pittsburgh — his wife’s hometown — to pursue a bachelor’s degree in public service from the College of General Studies.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine. I may not be active duty anymore, but I will always be a Marine,” said Garofalo, who is the grandson of two war veterans. “The Marine Corps has given a lot to me and my family, and a major part of the person I am today is due to the military.”

In the coming year, Garofalo hopes to see Pitt Vets continue to evolve into a “one-stop shop” for helping student veterans to navigate their way through collegiate life and into the professional world. He hopes to be more proactive in reaching out to the student veterans at Pitt and the regional campuses as well as their families. For Thanksgiving, the organization is planning a potluck dinner for veterans unable to spend the holiday with family.

When people think of Pitt Vets, I want them to think of service and a commitment to our nation that doesn’t fade away just because we no longer wear a uniform.

Alexander Austin, former president of Pitt Vets

Garofalo said his overarching goal is to create a strong family atmosphere among Pitt’s veterans that will make the transition into college life seamless.

“Adjusting to a campus environment can be difficult for any new student. This is especially true if you are a decade older than most of your classmates, you’re married with three children and your life’s experiences include serving your country in a foreign land,” said Garofalo, who aspires to run for public office after graduating from Pitt.

“Fresh out of the military and new to college life, it was important for me, personally, to find a community who could relate to the things that I’ve seen and done,” he said. “There is a certain comfort in something as simple as walking across campus and seeing your buddy.”

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