Research & Innovation

Stevens Students Answer the Call for Veterans’ Crisis Hotline

Business, Computer Science Students Collaborate to Help Vets4Warriors’ Lifesaving Mission

Stevens students presenting a business plan to Vets4Warriors in Piscataway.
Stevens students created a system to help counselors provide faster assistance to veterans in need. From left, Joyce Pegler, Austin Cawley-Edwards, Ben Iofel, retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, Professor Don Lombardi, Jeff McGirr and Zoë Gnecco.

When you’re a college student, giving a high-level presentation to a room of managers can be an intimidating experience.  

But it’s nothing like standing before a group of veterans, explaining how a piece of technology you’ve designed can help them more effectively respond to crisis calls from other veterans in need of counseling or other services.  

It was a moment that hit home for Stevens Institute of Technology student Joyce Pegler when she glanced at the time during her team’s presentation.  

“I looked at the wall, where the clock is, and there’s a piece of paper covering the clock, and it just says ‘the time is now,’ ” Pegler, a rising senior in the School of Business, said. “Once you notice that, you understand just how much these guys mean business.”

Unique insights into business, technology

Pegler was presenting at the offices of Vets4Warriors, in Piscataway. There, veterans answer between 900 and 1,000 calls each week from fellow veterans seeking financial, medical or legal help — even suicide prevention, a well-publicized crisis among U.S. veterans. But counselors answering those calls often struggle to connect those in need with the best resources. 

Stevens students present at Vets4Warriors.
Joyce Pegler, right, clarifies a point with the leadership of Vets4Warriors during a presentation as fellow student Zoë Gnecco looks on.

That’s where Stevens came in. A team of students, led by Dr. Don Lombardi, an industry associate professor at the School of Business, built a searchable system to quickly connect counselors with the resources veterans need. 

The Stevens system, called CLR, or Counselor’s Laptop Resource, allows counselors to search for resource providers by specialty as well as location; previously, veterans directed callers to the services they were most familiar with, creating potential overuse of certain providers who might be many miles from those in need. CLR also allows counselors to rate the effectiveness of services, to ensure quality. 

It’s the kind of project uniquely suited to students at Stevens, where even courses in traditional management disciplines are infused with technology. That’s partly why Pegler is pursuing a master’s in Information Systems in addition to her undergraduate Business & Technology major

“In my graduate classes, you really don’t learn how to develop a system, but rather, how to integrate a system into a company, and how to make those implementations and integrations work effectively,” she said. “That has definitely been beneficial in this project.”

Insightful collaboration among business, engineering students

CLR was designed by Austin Cawley-Edwards ’18, a Computer Science major, working with Pegler and Zoë Gnecco ’18, a Management major. Cawley-Edwards, the development lead, has been joined by fellow Computer Science majors Ben Iofel ’19 and Jeff McGirr ’18. 

“I agreed to work on this project because it tied together everything I came to Stevens to find — getting involved with large-scope projects; working with people from a variety of backgrounds; and creating meaningful, impactful products,” Cawley-Edwards said. 

For Cawley-Edwards, that includes a chance to work with business students on an actual project. 

“Working with business students has helped us get out of the ‘tech first’ mindset and other biases that are so easy to slip into when working in a team where everyone’s of similar backgrounds,” he said. 

Stevens students present to Vets4Warriors.
Austin Cawley-Edwards lays out some planned modifications to the CLR system in a presentation at Vets4Warriors.

That cross-pollination worked for the business students, also. 

“Being at Stevens, we’re used to working with students of different majors,” Gnecco said. “Since we are such a tight community on a small campus, we have an advantage of really knowing how to work and communicate with students who are more scientifically or technically based.”  

The team began by visiting the Vets4Warriors offices, interviewing counselors about the challenges they face when the phone rings and surveying them to see how they used technology on the job. That helped Gnecco and Pegler better understand how they could help counselors, rather than build a system to solve a noncritical problem. From there, they worked with Cawley-Edwards to ensure the right system was built. And while each side has a defined role, the business students lend insight on database structure, while the computer scientists have a voice in the planning and design of the business. That’s helped the team coordinate and adjust to complications along the way.

'Stevens students give us that expertise'

A beta of CLR has already won praise from Vets4Warriors and its director, retired Army Maj. Gen. Mark Graham. In April, the Stevens team returned to get additional input from Graham and his team. Pegler asked a series of questions to better understand obstacles to CLR’s success and to help Cawley-Edwards and the engineering students integrate it in a way that encouraged adoption by counselors; that work is now in progress.  

“Since we are a tight community on a small campus, we have an advantage of really knowing how to work and communicate with students who are more scientifically or technically based.”

Zoë Gnecco '18, Management major

The obvious care and attention to detail the students brought to the project impressed Graham. 

Vets4Warriors is “such a helping environment, all the social workers — but the computer, the systems, are the backbone, nothing runs without it,” he said. “I’m a field artillery guy, so as I say, you can have all the best equipment in the world, but if you don’t have any ammunition, it doesn’t do you any good. The Stevens students give us that expertise that helps make this work.” 

For Professor Lombardi, the project has particular significance — he is a former officer in the Marine Corps and faculty liaison to Stevens’ Veterans Office.

“The students’ work is making a difference to a 1,000 lives a week — and their loved ones, their families, their boyfriends and girlfriends,” Dr. Lombardi said. “And getting that resource that quickly could be the difference between a vet hanging up — or getting that vet the help he or she needs.”