Front and Center with Dr. John Schupp

I usually conduct my interviews via e-mail. I do this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I am not a professional journalist and this helps me make sure I don’t miss anything. However, I cannot tell you how glad I am that I conducted this interview via phone. Dr. John Schupp is an incredibly engaging, humorous, genuine individual and I utterly enjoyed speaking with him.

I first discovered Dr. John Schupp while working as a VA School Certifying Official. Like many schools, my college had an abysmal turnover rate amongst its student veterans (Almost 88% of veterans drop out of school within two terms!). Much surprised and concerned by this fact, I started looking for solutions. I found them in Dr. Schupp and his Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran (SERV) program.

Dr. Schupp, or John, as he insists I call him, is a former creator and CEO of American Crystal Technologies & Optics, 4-time patent developer, and 20-year Chemistry professor. He has also become one of the most passionate advocates for veterans, especially student veterans, in the country. He has been named the Ohio Veteran Advocate of the Year by the Vietnam Veterans of America, received the Department of Defense Zachary Fisher “Humanitarian of the Year” Award, and his name is on a plaque in the Pentagon, honoring his work with veterans, work that started with the SERV program.

John got the first inkling of a need for such a program in 2006. After a full year of research, getting the pieces in place, and finding veterans willing to participate, SERV was launched in 2008. Using the “battle buddy” concept, SERV puts veterans in classrooms with only other veterans for their first few terms to help ease the transition from combat to classroom. This both connects veterans to each other, giving them a network on campus they can rely on, and provides them a comfortable learning environment. The results were incredible – an initial passing rate of 85% the first term and 92% the following term.

After the initial success of SERV, John began lobbying to expand the program. In 2008, he helped create legislation that provides grant monies to colleges to help create “Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success.” He has also compiled statistics on the success of such centers and helps colleges and universities across the country leverage the information to create veteran centers on their campuses. To date, he has spoken in person to over 200 campuses nationwide, reached out to another 300 campuses via webinar, and provided business plans for creating vet centers on over 100 campuses.

Read on to find out more about Dr. Schupp and what he’s doing for student veterans:

Me: How did you first get the idea for the SERV program?

John: One of my students who’d been to Kosovo couldn’t fit in. I wanted to know why. It started out as a problem for me to solve. Veteran students didn’t graduate, they had poor GPAs. I wanted to know why. So I did a little experiment and it worked. But why?

It was the environment causing the issue. When you put veterans in a regular classroom, they couldn’t concentrate, they hated coming to class. They were used to controlling the environment and they were used to working together for the common good. When you put them together in a class, those instincts kicked in. They refused to let each other fail. And they loved coming to class.

Me: After the SERV experiment and its success, you said you wanted to know why. I know, from experience with your work, that you’ve done extensive analysis on veterans. What would you say is the most significant thing you discovered?

John: That veteran success is critical to the nation’s success. Every time veterans have come home and we, the nation, have supported them, we’ve been successful as a nation. Every time they haven’t been supported, our nation has suffered. Our veterans have to succeed for our country to succeed.

Me: On a more personal level, what would you say you’ve learned about veterans?

John: Veterans are taught three things that make them successful, three things that civilians simply aren’t taught. The first is to work together for the common good, whether you like people or not. Civilians are terrible at that. They are all into politics and hating each other and they let that take priority over getting things done. Veterans don’t do that. Second, they have the ability to make decisions that make them self-reliant. And, third, they know how to put themselves second to the bigger picture.

Also, the way they treat wounded veterans. I mean, those guys are ostracized three times. First, by society. You know, someone notices they are missing a limb or something and they ask them what happened, were you in an accident and they say, no, I lost it in a bomb blast in Afghanistan and they get, you know, well, why did you even go over there anyway, why did you even decide to fight the war. Then, by their family – why did you have to volunteer, why couldn’t you have been safer on that mission, that kind of thing. And then, third, by the VA. They maybe get their rating downgraded because VA doesn’t want to pay or whatever.

But put them in with healthy vets and the wounded vet is embraced. All those healthy vets, they know some guy who got blown up in Iraq or Afghanistan and they know he was flown out but they don’t know what happened to him and they can’t do anything for him but they can do something for this guy. And so they get determined that they are going to do whatever it takes to help this guy; they absolutely will not let him fail. And that’s good for the wounded vet and it’s good for the healthy vet because it takes away that guilt over that other guy they couldn’t help.

Me: You SERV program has been quite successful but I know you’re too passionate about veterans for that to be the end of your involvement with veterans. What’s your next endeavor?

John: The VSSEL (Veterans, Service-members and Students Engaged in Leadership) Project. It’s based on the concept that vets can influence the student body given the right circumstances. You know, in WWII, there were so many vets, they could get stuff done just by sheer numbers. That’s not the case now. [~50% of the student body in WWII, compared to less than 4% now] There’s like a 100:1 ratio of civilians to veterans in society but, if 60% of Post-9/11 vets go to school, the ratio is 10:1 of civilian students to veteran students and, with those odds, real change can happen.

The goal of the VSSEL grant is to lower the suicide rate. The only generation of veterans that has had a higher suicide rate than Post-9/11 veterans is WWI veterans. The main difference between WWI and WWII veterans was the GI Bill. By using the grants to put Veterans Resource Centers on college campuses, we reduce the suicide rate. By reducing the suicide rate, we reduce costs. Right now, about 7.7% of student veterans attempt suicide. Each attempt costs the government about $15,000. If 50% of our veterans use the GI Bill, that’s 98,801 student veterans nationwide who will attempt suicide at least once. That amounts to $1.4 billion dollars in VA costs. If we can get Congress to invest $300,000 per campus, for 1,000 campuses ($300M) to have a Veterans Resource Center, we could potentially reduce the suicide rate among student veterans by 50%. That saves the VA $400 million dollars (this takes into account the $300 million spent on resource centers). This grant would save lives and be budget negative, saving the government money.

Me: If you could give this newest generation of veterans a single piece of advice, if you could tell them one thing, what would it be?

John: Come together and save the country. You’ve been trained to do it; you’ve done it in Iraq, you’ve done it in Afghanistan. There’s no one better trained to do it here. The nation needs you.

To my great surprise, John has asked me to include both his e-mail and his personal cell phone number here because, he says, he wants to hear from veterans. If you are trying to get a Veterans Resource Center on your campus and want statistics for veterans in your county, a business plan for getting a center on your campus, etc., feel free to contact him at john.schupp@theservprogram.com or 440-488-6416.

© 2013, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.

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