Campus & Community

Veterans Program Gets Boost From Enterprising Summer Scholar

The 2008 Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, commonly known as the “Post-9/11 GI Bill,” provides education benefits to veterans who have served three years on active duty since September 11, 2001. For these veterans, the federal government will fund 100 percent of a four-year undergraduate education at a public university. But an annual cap applied to private colleges and universities can lead to out-of-pocket expenses that put private schools out of reach for many veterans. For the 2014-15 school year, the maximum reimbursement is $20,235.02, far below the actual tuition and fees at many private institutions.

To help bridge the gap between Post-9/11 benefits and private university tuition and fees, a provision of the bill – the Yellow Ribbon Program – allows institutions of higher education to enter into an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to fund tuition expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate. The institution can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses and the VA will match that contribution.

Over the past six years, more than 100 veterans and veteran dependents have received the Yellow Ribbon scholarship at Stevens, which is one of more than 700 schools to participate in the program.

Genevieve Finn, a business and technology major at Stevens, credits the Yellow Ribbon Program for giving many veterans and their dependents the opportunity to further their education. But the program can be improved significantly, she says, to better serve the deserving soldiers who have given the greatest service to their country.

The Stevens sophomore from Allentown, New Jersey is designing a national model for expanding the Yellow Ribbon Program, to be used not only at Stevens but also at other participating colleges and universities, through the Stevens Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship's ten-week Summer Scholars Program.

Finn’s choice of research project wasn’t made haphazardly. Her interest in veterans’ affairs stems from a personal enterprise that began after a series of hip operations at the age of 14 forced Finn to use crutches. She recoiled at having to sport the plain aluminum devices for what would be a two-year recovery period. So with her innate sense of style and artistic flair, Finn transformed the joyless, metal supports into colorful, personalized statement pieces, using fabric and vinyl tape. Her crutches became conversation starters, grabbing the attention of strangers and deflecting attention away from her medical condition, she says. Interest in her crutches spawned a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization – Genevieve’s Crutches – that provided decorated crutches for people who would benefit from them the most, such as wounded warriors.

The idea to send some to wounded soldiers recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center came about as Finn and her family coped with the loss of a family friend who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Finn and her family continue to travel to the medical center in Bethesda, Maryland every few months with a carload of crutches ready to donate to patients there.

The Summer Scholars Program presented an ideal opportunity for Finn to apply her academic studies to a personal cause.

"Genevieve came to Stevens with an established reputation in the veterans community for exemplary leadership and thoughtful innovation with her nonprofit organization," says Finn's advisor Donald Lombardi, director of the Stevens Healthcare Educational Partnership (SHEP) and academic director of the Stevens Veterans Office.

Using the business knowledge she gained at Stevens, Finn is designing a carefully-crafted business proposal for expanding the Yellow Ribbon Program.

“From a business standpoint, I have had to think about all the elements needed for this expansion to operate effectively – departmental responsibilities, training and development processes, and team dynamics. Although I learned about these topics in my business classes, I now have to figure out how all of these pieces affect one other.”

Finn’s business model is multi-layered, focusing on three key areas of the Yellow Ribbon Program.

The first is the implementation of a preparation course to help returning veterans who must take the SAT or ACT as a requirement to apply to colleges and universities.

“It has been many years since the veterans have studied basic math, reading, writing and science. SAT prep would make the veterans more confident with the test because it will review subjects that they may be weaker in,” says Genevieve.

Another area of focus is to allow the transfer of the education benefit to the spouse of a veteran.

“Many veterans come back with disabling injuries, overwhelming PTSD or life-changing traumatic brain injuries. In these cases, the spouse becomes the main provider for the family, but may not have the earning power, absent a degree, to cover normal living expenses, as well as the new medical expenses associated with the veteran’s injuries.”

Lastly, Finn is working on a prototype for a website that would be user-friendly and have improved functionality over what is currently in use. In its current state, the Yellow Ribbon Program website is organized according to state, presenting all of the information for a state on a single page. Describing the site as “cluttered and disorganized,” Finn says the experience of navigating the website can be frustrating and overwhelming.

“For veterans who are coming back and are stressed out with trying to figure out the next stage of their lives, the confusion of the website could be discouraging,” she says.

With the goal of improved user experience, Finn’s design simplifies each state’s page with a list of participating colleges and links to the selected college’s information page on the Yellow Ribbon Program.

“My website also gives you a link to the college’s application and what other military scholarships are offered at that school, so that the veteran does not have to do any further research.”

The website component of her proposal, Finn explains, takes full advantage of the technology side of her academic major at Stevens, requiring a comprehensive understanding of how online features function while being secure.

“I had the ability to learn more about different security coding and how website coding works,” Finn says.

According to Finn’s advisor, the outcome of the research project will have a lasting impact on the veterans community at Stevens.

"This research project for the Summer Scholars program has facilitated the further development of a stellar student, while also providing tremendous benefit to the Stevens Veterans Office and beyond. We urgently need this sort of research assisting nonprofits, who already work with limited budgets and must leverage every ounce and dollar of public outreach," says Lombardi.