The decision to go back to school is rarely easy. But for veterans, the discipline required to serve in the armed forces may be the perfect training.
Just ask Ryan Bridge ’12 M.S. ’13, who enrolled at the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology after serving four years with the Marines, including two tours in Iraq as a squad leader and rifleman.
“It’s the discipline that the military instills in you,” said Bridge, who earned a master’s in Business Intelligence & Analytics to go with his undergraduate degree. “After those experiences, you're pretty eager to get back into the classroom. You just have more of an open mind after all of the experiences you’ve gone through, and it's easier to learn when you're more receptive.”
In navigating that transition from service member to student, veterans at Stevens enjoy an important advantage: Dr. Don Lombardi, the faculty liaison for the Stevens Veterans Office and an industry associate professor in the School of Business. The man known simply as Doc around campus enjoys the respect of students from military and civilian backgrounds alike because of the authenticity he brings to work.
Transitioning to civilian life
After graduating from high school a year early, Lombardi enrolled at Fordham University, but within a year was considering military service: “My father and my uncle were both Marines, so I knew I better join the Marine Corps or else I’d never hear the end of it.”
He kept the family tradition alive by attending officer training boot camp in the summers and was commissioned as a second lieutenant at only 20 years old. After five years of active duty, he earned his master’s in human resources management at Pepperdine University through the GI Bill, and later got his Ph.D. in organizational psychology. Today’s he’s an expert in healthcare and HR, with connections at major hospital systems and 12 published books to his name.
Dr. Lombardi’s pathway from military to civilian life is one reason Justin Williams decided to study Electrical Engineering at Stevens after five years in the Navy.
“When I met Doc, it immediately clicked that he got what it meant to be a service member, whereas the people at most other places that I talked to didn’t,” said Williams, who came to Castle Point by way of the USS Annapolis, a nuclear submarine that took him around the world. “Dr. Lombardi and the folks in the Stevens Veterans Office understand what that transition is like. They understand that as a veteran you are the same but different, and you deserve a little bit of extra administrative leverage.”
That administrative leverage comes from the hard-working staff of the Veterans Office, including Deborah Berkley, dean of Student Development and Enrichment Programs, and Michelle Patrón, who handles the financial side of things — a role she said is made more worthwhile because of the type of students she helps.
“The veterans and service members have a lot to offer us,” Patrón said. “When they come here, they are upping our game. It makes me want to work really hard for them.”
Knowing that their financial situations are taken care of unburdens the students and helps them excel, Bridge said. “It really enables you to focus just on your academics and get what you want out of school,” he said.
Leaders on campus and beyond
Bridge, who was a two-time all-American wrestler at Stevens, also took Dr. Lombardi’s project management course, which has come in handy in his career as a business analyst at Jefferies.
In terms of influence, few students can compete with the mentorship Mark Roberson received from Dr. Lombardi. Roberson, who earned his master’s in Management from the School of Business in 2015, is Dr. Lombardi’s godson and cousin.
“Whenever I had a question growing up, I’d always go ask Godfather Don — from high school, to college, to the Marines,” he said.
“I'm not a maybe kind of guy, and the Marine Corps is not a maybe kind of organization. The same is true of Stevens.”
As a major in the Marine Corps, Roberson piloted a C-130, a four-engine aircraft nicknamed the Battle Herc. When Roberson left active duty in 2011, Dr. Lombardi steered him toward Stevens, and even taught one of the courses Roberson took, though familial ties had their limits: “He gave me one of the lowest grades I got in my entire master’s program,” he said.
Jim Lester majored in Civil Engineering at Stevens, but also took Dr. Lombardi’s project management class, as “I was really interested in the topics that Doc was teaching, primarily because of the way he was presenting it, and the way that he kept the classroom fun, involved and exciting.”
Like Dr. Lombardi, Lester also has a family tradition with the Marines, something the two men connected over and the reason Lester knew he could turn to Doc for advice.
“Once I really considered enlisting, he was one of the first people I contacted,” Lester said. “He said it was a great opportunity and validated a lot of the reasons why I wanted to join. He also just let me know my options.”
Stevens’ reputation as a technical leader lends itself well to the type of skills that the military develops. Ultimately, Lester attended Officer Candidates School after graduating in 2015, and he’s now a structural engineer at HDR who serves as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps Reserves.
If it seems like many of the veterans who enroll at Stevens go on to great success, that’s a function of both military service and the university’s culture, Dr. Lombardi said.
“I'm not a maybe kind of guy, and the Marine Corps is not a maybe kind of organization,” he said. “The same is true of Stevens.”
For their part, the veterans who come to Stevens are leaders both within and outside the classroom, a role they embrace. Williams launched his healthcare startup, now called Noteworth, as a student; he still returns to campus to speak at events.
“There are absolutely opportunities where you can mentor, and I did for a couple members of my class,” he said. “You know a lot more about yourself at 26 than an 18-year-old does.”
It comes down to finding a school with the right appreciation for military service and relevant career-focused skills — one Bridge said he found at Stevens.
“The biggest hurdle is just getting there,” he said. “It’s not being afraid of trying something different after you’ve had everything mapped out for you in the military.”