New Boots to Suits Program Gets Veteran Students Connected to the Denver Business Community
Cameron Cook, director of Veteran Student Services for the University of Colorado Denver, vividly remembers his transition from the military to college. "You step on campus and you don't really understand how college works; it's such a totally alien environment. Veterans and military students definitely bring a lot of great skill sets that help them to succeed in college, but people don't know how intimidating that transition can be." Cook is passionate about his veteran students and their success.
You can hear the excitement in his voice when he speaks about CU Denver's newly implemented Boots to Suits program. According to Cook, "A lot of people don't realize that many veterans went straight from high school into the military; and then they went straight into college. A lot of them have never done a job interview, they've never written a resume, and never dressed professionally, outside of the military."
The Boots to Suits program is a partnership between the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the University of Colorado Denver, launched in February 2012, to give veteran students the guidance and support they need to transition into successful careers. The program has three major components: helping smooth the transition from military to college, retention and support while in school, and easing the way from college to the workforce. Working with the Career Center, the Experiential Learning Center and the Chancellor's Office, Cook and his team are setting up infrastructure to make it easier for Denver businesses to bring on veterans as interns and employees.
"The GI Bill is such a huge investment right now," says Cook. "The whole purpose of it is an investment in veterans' futures, and the future of this country and its workforce." As a result of returning military service personnel taking advantage of the GI Bill, Cook says the veteran student population on the Auraria campus for CU Denver has gone from 300 students in the fall of 2009 to over 700 enrolled for spring 2012. "Business is booming," Cook laughs.
Cook remembers how he felt as a veteran attending college for the first time, "Speaking for myself, when I got out of the military I just wanted to distance myself. I didn't claim veteran status for two years." Cook says this isolation can be painful for veteran students. Because they are older than traditional students, veterans often refrain from engaging in student activities and focus on their studies in order to graduate on accelerated timeframes. He hopes that Boots to Suits will give veteran students a different attitude and a support system designed specifically around their unique needs. "We need to get the veterans out, involved and engaged on the campus, and actively preparing for their futures."
The first major initiative of the Boots to Suits program is pairing junior and senior students with a volunteer mentor from his or her chosen future career path. Talking about the commitments made by both the mentors and mentees Cook says, "Both sides are very busy. Veteran students are non-traditional students; they have family responsibilities and a lot of things on the table as well." Cook is adamant about the importance of getting veteran students exposure to the workforce before graduation, and he is very particular about matching mentors with students. "The caliber of mentors we have this semester is just unbelievable. The doors that this program is opening for the students is amazing." Upon completion of the semester-long partnership, mentors have the option to buy suits at a discounted rate for their graduating mentees, so that they are better prepared for job interviews and heading into the workforce.
In the first cohort of mentor partnerships, most of the mentors were recruited from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and paired with students from the Business school, but Cook sees worlds of potential for expansion into CLAS disciplines, "We intend to branch out to media, medical professionals, non-profits, entrepreneurship, law enforcement, and just about anything else. The Metro Chamber has been huge, because they have generated so much excitement, but this could go much larger than it started this year."
Currently, senior communication student Sean Sullivan is reaping the rewards of his mentor-partnership with Tim Wieland, News Director for CBS Chanel 4, KCNC-TV. Sullivan was in the army for three years and upon completing his military service, received an Associates of Arts in general studies from Montgomery County Community College in Bluebell, Pennsylvania. Sullivan is originally from Florida, but spent time at Fort Carson (Colorado Springs) during his service and Colorado appealed to him. He selected CU Denver because of its reputation as a military friendly school and decided on a communication major because, he says, "It was the broadest spectrum major. I was advised that communication was a good choice because of all the doors the degree opens." Video production had always appealed to him, and his time in the communication department steered him toward aspirations in documentary filmmaking and television production.
Trying to complete his education as fast as possible, at the end of the fall 2012 term, Sullivan realized that the "real world" was coming up very soon, and he didn't have anything lined up for life after graduation. Sullivan recalls, "I was getting nervous, and starting to look for internships and stuff, but I really had no idea what I was doing." Boots to Suits became the missing link for him. Sullivan attended the launch celebration for the program, where Cook pulled him aside and asked if he had a mentor. "He said get the paperwork in and we will set you up," Sullivan remembers. Sullivan now sees this as one of the best decisions he has made in his academic career. He advises other students, "Even if you know what you want to do, with a mentor you have a real world business partner that can be a contact later. Ten years down the road, if I'm having trouble, I'm pretty sure I can call Tim and receive valuable advice. It's a really solid connection to have."
Sullivan has ex-military friends at other schools all over the country, and when they hear about Boots to Suits they are interested in the program and ask him how they can sign up. Cook is trying to chapter Boots to Suits to other universities in the area, spreading the success it is already enjoying here. "There is a huge interest in the program. As the veteran student population continues to grow, we will continue to grow," says Cook. Simultaneously, the program works to educate the business community on the benefits of hiring veterans. Cook sees this first class of mentors and their student partners as community ambassadors. "Hopefully through their interactions they can see how amazing these students are, and they share that knowledge with their peers."
Cook is excited at the prospect of Boots to Suits future: "Everyone supports the troops, but they don't really know how to support the troops, and this gives them a tangible way to do that."To learn more about the Boots to Suits program, including how you can get involved, you can visit their webpage here.
Allison Hammond is a recent CU Denver Alum and Marketing Intern for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.