Manhattan College celebrates its student veterans with launch of a new resource center

Students convene in the new Veterans Success Center. Courtesy Ryan Werner.
Students convene in the new Veterans Success Center on the campus of Manhattan College. The center was unveiled at a press conference on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
Photo courtesy Ryan Werner

Nearly 100 student veterans currently attend Manhattan College in Riverdale, and until now they haven’t had much of their own space to study. But on Tuesday, the school will open its brand new Manhattan College Veterans Success Center — the first of its kind on campus.

Tiana Sloan, the director of Veterans Success Programs at the college, said the new Veterans Success Center was a long time coming. Five years ago Manhattan College opened a smaller lounge for its student veteran population, but it didn’t have adequate space or resources.

“It really wasn’t what a proper center should be,” Sloan said. “Five years ago was a great start, but we quickly learned that it wasn’t enough space to really help all the things we’re trying to do here.”

Founded in 1853, a military-friendly campus has been a priority of Manhattan College since the beginning, according to Sloan, who said the first student veteran to enroll in the school had served in the Civil War. 

“Our history actually dates back over 150 years … Manhattan College supporting military veterans as they transition between education and service,” she said. 

After the GI Bill was passed into U.S. law in 1944, veterans across the country were eligible to receive benefits that included tuition assistance for undergraduate and graduate school, as well as other training programs. According to Syracuse University, since 2009 colleges and universities have seen more than 2 million veterans return to school to obtain degrees, and as of 2014 around 96% of all higher education institutions enrolled veterans.  

Christopher Norberto is the president of the Student Veterans Organization at the Manhattan College. He said the new center will serve as a place for student veterans to not only study, but decompress and connect with each other about their shared experiences.

“The transition back to civilian life is rough, there’s just an aimlessness that’s associated with it,” he told the Bronx Times. 

Norberto, a 32-year-old Bronx native, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2010, and worked as a security officer overseas in Bahrain and El Salvador, as well as in Coronado. He spent 11 years in the military — of which nine were active duty — but after leaving in 2019 he realized finding a job proved difficult without a degree.   

“I could not find a job to save my life,” Norberto said. “I’d go on job interviews and I’d have civilian security companies telling me that I didn’t have enough experience doing security, which blew me away.” 

As his job outlook remained bleak, one of Norberto’s friends from the navy encouraged him to look into his hometown college. And the former navy officer enrolled in Manhattan College in August 2020. 

One of Norberto’s goals — not only with the Veterans Success Center but also as the president of the Student Veterans Organization — is to foster more of a connection between the student veteran population and traditional students on campus. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, just 15% of student veterans are of typical college student age; most are between the ages of 24 and 40. Additionally, around 47% of student veterans are married, another 47% have children and about 62% are first-generation college students.

Norberto said the social environment at school is different for student veterans, since many don’t fit the traditional college-kid-type mold. 

“I got gray hairs in my beard, I’m covered in tattoos, I got a gravelly voice,” he said. “A lot of the younger students won’t engage. That’s actually a big mission of mine while I’m here, is to help bridge the gap between the student veteran and the general student population.”

And part of facilitating more connections among students involves providing veterans with the resources they need to be academically successful in the classroom, he said. Taking a holistic approach to reentry — like learning about different yoga, breathing and meditation techniques for reducing stress — can be instrumental in a student veteran’s success.

“I wish I had done this as a younger man, I probably would have been more mature and healthy,” Norberto said. “But I’ll get there.” 

Both Norberto and Sloan echoed similar sentiments, saying the main purpose of the new center is to provide student veterans with the space they need to thrive both in school and in life after service.

“I think that when our student veterans talk to our traditional students, a lot of times they each find out that they have more in common with each other than they think,” Sloan said. “I think it’s just sort of breaking down those barriers so that everybody feels comfortable talking to each other.” 

The school will be hosting an invitation-only ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday to celebrate the official opening of the on-campus Manhattan College Veterans Success Center. Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson and state Division of Veterans’ Services Director Vivian DeCohen are expected to attend. 

This article was updated at 2:26 p.m. on Sept. 14.

Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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