Abbie Osborn remembers what it’s like to be at the front of a classroom.
Only a handful of years ago, as a medic on an Air Force base in North Dakota, Osborn was charged with leading medical briefings for soldiers about to deploy overseas. There could be as many as 200 people in the room at any given training, she said, and for four years of active duty, she was responsible for making sure all of them knew what to do in the field.
Once, when the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force visited her base, Osborn was asked to brief him, too. It’s one of the measured and confident performances that got her promoted from airman first class to a senior airman six months early, she said.
Now a third-year student studying psychology, Osborn is one of more than 500 degree-earning student veterans across Pitt’s schools and campuses. She’s still getting used to being on the other side of the lecture podium.
“Many of my professors don’t know I’m a veteran,” said Osborn, 23. If she had to guess, she’d say many student vets share the same mindset: “I don’t want to be thought of or treated any differently” because of veteran status.
But, that means professors and peers are often unaware of the unique range of experiences each vet brings to the classroom, or the challenges they may face.
Life as a student vet is not what it is for the “traditional,” 18-year-old first year student who’s straight out of high school. Everything from a typical day down to how quickly vets finish their degree can look different.
College, for this population, is often preparation for a second career.
“Typically, our veteran students are older and can come with a family and many additional responsibilities,” said David Roudabush, outreach coordinator in the Office of Veterans Services. “Also, veterans [can] leave service with injuries from war such as PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or physical disabilities,” that can present additional hurdles.
Osborn has a 1-year-old at home with her husband, Blake, a Marine infantry vet and Pitt grad himself. Although she’s no longer active duty military, she is currently in the U.S. Air National Guard, which requires a commitment of one weekend a month in Buffalo, N.Y., to train new recruits.
Most days start at 6 a.m., tending to the little one and heading to class. After getting home around 5:30 p.m., “I try to spend as much time with my family as possible, and then once my son goes to bed I’m studying until around 1 in the morning pretty much every day.” There’s no time for midday naps.
Osborn said her schedule and additional responsibilities makes it hard to attend regular office hours or participate in social events on campus. But her military training helped prepare her to be a driven and disciplined student, capable of successfully juggling a lot at once.
“Veteran students bring so much to the table and are an incredible asset on campus,” said Roudabush. “Universities need to capitalize on the assets veterans bring such as leadership, life experience, work ethic and teamwork expertise.”
Osborn said her son also gets her through the long days — “I want him to see that the hard work can be worth it.”
She hopes to attend medical school once she finishes her degree. Early experiences at the start of her four years of active duty, and especially having her son, told her medicine was where she ought to be. She wants to help heal people.
In the meantime, “I’ll be picking up staff sergeant soon,” Osborn said.
Serving those who served
Staff in Pitt’s Office of Veterans Services (OVS) have been there. Director Edwin Hernandez and most of his team are veterans themselves. The office provides student resources and support systems, assisting with everything from GI Bill and military education benefits to preferred course scheduling for student vets. They also help families of veterans.
For the 2018–19 academic year — and the second year in a row — Pitt was named a Military Friendly School. The rating is based on six categories: academic policies and compliance, admissions and orientation, culture and commitment, financial aid and assistance, graduation and career, and military student support and retention.
New this year in OVS is a Career Development Program that “provides an action plan for our Pitt military affiliated students in order to assist them with self-discovery, resume writing, interview etiquette, possible career paths, and academic and career opportunities” in the transition to post-grad life, said Roudabush.
Melissa Ernst (CGS ’14) attended Pitt on her dad’s GI Bill. Now, she’s the public relations and employee program coordinator for Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard, a Pittsburgh-based organization dedicated to ending veteran homelessness. Ernst said the organization is always looking to involve Pitt student vets and grads. “There’s a real need” for their outlook, she said.
“Each veteran has their own story through their time in service but also shares that commonality of the brotherhood/sisterhood which can only be experienced through the unique culture of military service,” said Roudabush.
He knows when it comes to helping this population balance the demands of academic, personal and professional life, there’s always more to do.
In the leadup to Veterans Day, OVS hosted a number of events, culminating in the inaugural Military Community Appreciation Breakfast for faculty, staff, students and alumni veterans held on Nov. 8.
Two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were recognized at the breakfast for earning the U.S. military’s highest decoration for valor: Hershel “Woody” Williams for his actions above and beyond the call of duty in the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II and Walter Joseph Joe Marm for his selfless actions during the Battle of Ia Drang in the Vietnam War.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher thanked the veterans, and Diana Bishop, lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force ROTC, noted that the two are among the only living Medal of Honor recipients from those wars.
“This is a special morning,” said Gallagher. “To commemorate Veterans Day, I can’t think of a better way for us to start this tradition of annually getting together, breaking bread together and sharing our appreciation.”
“I’m very, very proud to say that we’re not just saying ‘thank you for your service,’” said OVS director Edwin Hernandez later. “We’re actually taking action on those words and doing things that are much needed for our veteran community here on campus.”