Stanford’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities (OMAC), which provides support and resources for the veteran and military-affiliated community on campus, has not had a director for almost a year. As of last week, Student Affairs is looking for a “fellow” — an internal, temporary role within the department — to fill the position instead.
“We have no direction, no leadership, nothing right now,” said Warren Mercer ’21, an undergraduate veteran who is working as student staff in OMAC.
Historically, OMAC, which was created in fall of 2014, has had a director that serves as a liaison between the student veteran community and the administration, helping to advocate for the students’ needs as well as plan events and help foster the community. This year-long vacancy has left students to do the work themselves.
“When there’s no OMAC director, it is literally students duct taping their academic and social university lives together,” said Stephen McReynolds ’20, a veteran and former OMAC student worker. He explained that now, the OMAC student staff do the work a director would have done in building and advocating for their community on top of their schoolwork, job searches and family lives.
There are currently about 30-35 undergraduate veteran students, according to Jan Barker Alexander, assistant vice provost of Student Affairs, and most are transfers. Their experience at Stanford is unique: They’re often older than most undergrads and transferred from community colleges. Some suffer from PTSD or are survivors of sexual assault. They have their experience serving, but that doesn’t always translate well into the academic and job worlds they are looking at as students. And the transition to Zoom classes has only added to the stress.
“This shouldn’t have continued for a year,” McReynolds said. “This [COVID-19] situation, if anything, means that we need someone now.”
Since OMAC’s last director, David Rice, moved to a new role before the fall of 2019, OMAC and the military community at Stanford have been sent from administrative office to office in search of a replacement. First, the office was restructured, moving from Student and Academic Services to Inclusion, Community and Integrative Learning — the same category as the FLI Office on campus. Then, a search committee for a new director was created, but progress was slow. In March, when the pandemic hit, the whole effort was put on pause.
In the spring of 2020, Emelyn dela Peña, associate vice provost for inclusion, community and integrative learning, said that the office was affected by the University’s COVID-19 hiring freeze. But the student veterans working at OMAC kept in constant dialogue with Student Affairs, pushing for a new director because they felt the role was “essential.” Now, the office is looking to hire a Student Affairs Fellow to fill the position.
The OMAC fellow will fill much of the roles that the normal director would have, assisting in “cultivating an inclusive and welcoming campus community with particular attention to the needs and concerns of veteran students and military-affiliated communities,” serving “as a visible resource for the military-affiliated communities at Stanford” and working “in close partnership with the Certifying Officer for VA benefits,” according to the job description.
But it’s still not a permanent job.
“We were told that this fellowship, if it’s even filled, is a temporary position and that its purpose is to determine ‘whether or not veterans need a dedicated office.’ I feel like it’s a dangerous game to ‘evaluate’ a community’s need for support,” said Nestor Walters ’21, a student veteran and Daily staff member. “We shouldn’t have to ‘prove’ that we need at least one dedicated staff member.”
For military-affiliated students, having someone in this role is critical. Both McReynolds and Mercer said that having a veteran community to lean on was imperative to their Stanford experiences, not only from a social perspective, but also in helping them learn more about the opportunities they have. They worry that the students who come after them won’t get the same experience.
“Now there’s all these people just not getting that opportunity to connect with their fellow veterans and active duty servicemembers,” Mercer said. “That [connection] is a huge value.”
In total, there are 95 military veterans, 31 dependents of veterans and 10 ROTC students studying as undergraduate or graduate students or as visiting fellows at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
Tina Wong ’22, student staff for OMAC, said, “Experiencing community among the veterans groups here really helps me put my own service into perspective, my own time in the military into perspective.”
“I think that’s really valuable for all of us, especially since a lot of us come in fresh — this is the transition from the military to civilian world,” she added.
Wong has been working at OMAC without a director since she got to Stanford. She has been a constant voice for the community throughout this time and was even called “OMAC student worker extraordinaire” and “the thread of consistency and dependability” by Alexander.
Wong, who grew up in San Jose with a mother who was a Vietnam War refugee and a father from Hong Kong, also said that having a defined, organized military-affiliated community on campus has the potential to help others understand the veteran experience and have dialogue about what that means.
“It’s helpful not just for us… it also opens it up to everybody else who didn’t see that, or didn’t go through it,” she said. “You don’t need to have gone through those things to understand the importance of understanding the military and the people who are involved in it.”
Despite how demanding it is, McReynolds, Mercer and Wong all said they’re willing to put in the work, even without a director. But their biggest fear is that when they’re gone, the progress they made for the community will go, too.
“The absence of the director really just hampers the progress and really pushes back all of the momentum that has been built up over the years,” Wong said.
“A lot of good has been done in the past few years,” McReynolds added, “but what we’re worried about is in this past year of not having a director — not only is more good not being done, but we’re worried that progress is undone.”