Dennis McReynolds, SMU Student Services & Veterans Resource Coordinator and Adjunct Assistant Professor
Marc Claydon spent a year deployed on a Navy frigate a half a world away. He hunted down pirates who were trying to hijack freight ships off the coast of Africa, rescued 20 refugees in the Mediterranean who had run out of fuel, and protected strategic oil reserves near Iraq.
Now, with the support of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon Program, Claydon is a second-year student at the California School of Podiatric Medicine (CSPM) at Samuel Merritt University (SMU), following in the footsteps of his grandfather and great grandfather as the third generation in his family to attend the school.
SMU became a Yellow Ribbon campus in 2012 in an effort to provide educational opportunities for veterans. The Yellow Ribbon Program allows institutions of higher learning to enter into dollar-for-dollar matching agreements with the federal government to pay for veterans’ educational costs that exceed those covered by the GI Bill benefit.
“The Yellow Ribbon Program reduces the financial burden, which allows me to focus on schoolwork,” says Claydon. “It makes me feel appreciated not only by the country, but also by the school.”
While Claydon had a relatively smooth adjustment from the military to civilian life, that’s not true for all veterans.
“As our troops come home, we need to do everything we can to help with their transition,” says SMU Dean of Admission Timothy Cranford, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “They have a lot of angst and anxiety about getting back to civilian life.”
Cranford says most veterans have spent the past few years in a heavily regimented lifestyle — being told when to eat, when to exercise, when to sleep. After they leave the armed services, he says, they have no one to direct them.
For those veterans who attend SMU, they find their guide in Dennis McReynolds, SMU’s veteran resource coordinator. He directs them to appropriate student services, and makes calls to the VA when their federal benefits do not arrive on time.
“I don’t want any of my vets concentrating on anything else other than becoming a healthcare professional,” says McReynolds.
An Army combat veteran and addiction specialist, McReynolds says veterans feel more comfortable talking to others with similar military experience.
“A lot of our vets don’t come back with physical wounds, instead they struggle with mental health issues like stress disorders,” he says.
McReynolds was teaching in the nursing program two years ago when a student asked him if the University participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program. The University was unaware of the program, so he introduced the idea to President Sharon Diaz.
“President Diaz is all for her students and she said, ‘We need this,’” he recalls.
Under the program, colleges and universities decide for themselves how many veterans they will support and the maximum amount of financial support they will contribute for each student. SMU does not set a limit on the number of veterans it will admit and provides each with $5,000 in support.
A year after SMU joined the Yellow Ribbon Program, there are now 21 veterans enrolled across all of the University’s degree programs, several others are expected in incoming classes, and efforts are underway to recruit more.
“We’re looking to build partnerships to help more people enter the health professions,” says Cranford. “I’m confident the program will build over time.”