The New Veteran Program – Creating a Culture at Sage

Troy native, Shawn Heller, enlisted in the Army National Guard on his 23rd birthday. In hindsight, Shawn sees it as one of the most important decisions he’s made in his life.

In 2014, Shawn was sent to Kuwait on a deployment with HHC 42nd Combat Aviation Brigade, a National Guard unit based out of Latham, NY. His primary responsibility was to create flight maps for missions within the country of Kuwait and throughout the Middle East.

Shawn views his time in the military as a crucial part of his education and character development. From personal discipline to project planning to having the confidence to tackle a problem and see it through to completion, his military experience has served him well.

Post deployment Shawn worked in the IT department at Sage while he pursued his education. He graduated from the University at Albany in 2019 and then accepted a position at Sage as the Assistant Director of Veteran Recruitment. In this new position, Shawn has been tasked with building a Veteran Program and culture at Sage. With this new program, Russell Sage College is dedicated to providing a comprehensive array of programs, support services, and advocacy for veterans, active military personnel, and their family members. It is a huge undertaking, but after listening to Shawn share his vision and his heart for veterans, and realizing he has a thorough understanding of what needs to happen, we were swept up by his enthusiasm and confident he was the person for this task.

Big picture, Shawn needs to build a culture at Sage that will help veterans succeed. Obtaining a college degree is the key to success after service, however, for veterans to be successful they need for the college, the faculty, and the administration to understand their unique needs.

To receive GI bill benefits veterans must attend school at least half time. This can present a challenge because many veterans also work full time. Faculty need to be part of the conversation to make accommodations for special needs, i.e. what happens when or if the vet is re-deployed? How do we support vets who have mental health needs? How do we help with housing? Shawn has great ideas for facilitating that conversation and keeping it going. He is working with local organizations to build a network of support for vets at Sage.

Shawn shared with us that vets are a tight knit community that all talk to each other. This means that it takes time to build trust. Institutions can get labeled as predatory if they are just looking to cash in on student veterans. To show our commitment we partnered with College Recon, a search engine used by veterans to find information about colleges. It helps vets find the places that will be best suited to help them with their collegiate needs. Having Sage on this site is key to veterans finding Sage as a great place to get an education.

Currently there are 60 vets or dependents at Sage. In Spring 2020, the first five students Shawn has recruited will begin their education. Growing a program to support them is a big, bold vision. Some things on the horizon include a lounge space for veterans, regular mental health support, some special activities around veteran day, and holiday care packages.

Shawn dreams big. He envisions a day when Sage will have a dormitory for veteran students, an SVA chapter (Student Veteran of America), and 100 veteran students. We have no doubt he will get there.
How can you support a veteran? From now until the December 1st the alumnae office and Shawn will collect supplies for care packages to be sent to service men and women. 

You can order things through Amazon Smile and benefit Sage. We look forward to a time when Sage has a significant veteran presence on our campuses. Follow the progress of this program as it grows and look for ways you as alumni can be involved.

And from all of us, thank you Shawn for your service.