How Northeastern Is Drawing Veterans With Specialized Services, Support

Download Audio
A Northeastern University campus building.
Northeastern University. (David Fox/Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism/Flickr)

Talk to veterans in Boston and you start hearing that one university stands out for its commitment to them.

That university is Northeastern. The school is seen as a model for addressing veterans' needs.

One reason is Andy McCarty. He is the director of Northeastern's Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers. He said he gets veterans to rethink what they can do.

"They think that because the military gave them a job, a very specific job, their military occupation skill, that that's somehow a vocation, and the job that they have to hold for the rest of their lives," McCarty said.

Finding Camaraderie And Support

After 27-year-old Max Spahn spent four years in the Marine Corps, including nine months in Afghanistan, he enrolled at a community college in New Jersey. But then he decided he wanted to find a school in Boston.

"Northeastern was the only one that stuck out to me for their veterans' services and their benefits," Spahn said. "They were the only school that I came across that I talked to that had a dedicated — they had an Andy. They had a dedicated veterans' service specialist. They had someone who was a vet that understood it."

Northeastern so impressed retired Army Gen. David McKiernan, who once led U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that he developed a relationship with the university and does occasional pro bono work as an adviser.

"I think it's probably as good a veterans' support network and infrastructure as any school that I've come across in the United States," McKiernan said.

"I would agree," John McGuinness said. "It's the absolute best place for veterans."

McGuinness joined other veterans near the Northeastern Veterans Memorial, off Huntington Avenue, for the inauguration of a new Veterans of Foreign Wars post — only the second on a college campus. He is a junior at Northeastern from Northborough and president of the Student Veterans Association.

"I wouldn't have made it through the first couple of years if it weren't for the camaraderie I had and the support I had from my fellow student veterans when I first got here, because I came here straight out of the Army," McGuinness said. "I had been in Afghanistan two years prior to walking into my first classroom here. I had no idea what I was doing, and if I wasn't around other people that had been through the same struggles, and could give me advice and tell me: 'No, just keep working on it. You'll be OK,' I don't know what I would have done."

Financial Assistance Beyond The GI Bill

Northeastern offered another big draw to Spahn: It would cover all costs his GI Bill benefits did not cover.

"Zero costs to me out of pocket is the biggest thing," Spahn said.

He graduated last month.

"And I'm still going to be able to graduate without a dime coming out of my pocket, because of Northeastern," Spahn said.

Financial aid is why Michael Trudeau, from Plymouth, a former president of the Northeastern Student Veterans Association, said he chose the school.

"I chose Northeastern, because I would come out debt-free," Trudeau said. "Northeastern is the best place for veterans in the city."

Northeastern is able to help veterans with financial aid thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon program. It covers college expenses beyond what the GI Bill covers. If a private university creates a veterans-only scholarship, the VA matches that scholarship dollar-for-dollar up to the full cost of tuition and fees. The VA reports that Northeastern contributes up to $25,000 a year per veteran in financial aid for 150 undergraduates on its Boston campus.

Northeastern says financial aid for veterans comes from gifts to the university and from operating expenses. It says donors have generally been receptive to giving in support of veterans, and its commitment to veterans and service members continues to be important to the university.

McCarty said all too often, veterans burn through all their GI Bill benefits without getting a degree.

"It's alarmingly frequent," McCarty said. "They will attend, on average, seven institutions before they arrive at the institution that awards them that bachelor's degree."

McCarty said many veterans attend for-profit colleges before turning to Northeastern. He said colleges have a moral responsibility to ensure veterans graduate. Once veterans do get to Northeastern, 82 percent of them graduate. By comparison, only slightly more than half of all veterans who use GI Bill benefits graduate from any course of study.

Spaces For Veterans To Talk

Northeastern offers other amenities its veterans appreciate.

Army veteran Brian Fountaine, of Plymouth, lost his lower legs when an improvised explosive device went off during his second tour in Iraq. He appreciates that Northeastern offers two spaces where veterans can meet.

"We have a lot of unique individuals, veterans here going to school, but we also have seen and done things that 99 percent of the student population haven't," Fountaine said. "So we need a place to go where we can talk and joke around about stuff that we can't do elsewhere."

The veterans are typically several years older than other undergraduates, something that Spahn is very much aware of.

"I'm 27 and I'm still in classes with 19-year-olds," Spahn said. "So it's like a big brother role, almost."

Despite the age difference, Spahn said he does not feel like he sticks out at Northeastern.

"There's so many different other groups of students from different parts of the world, different walks of life," Spahn said. "Everyone just melts together. I haven't gotten any special treatment from students, like: 'Oh! You're a veteran!' It's like the United States. It's a big melting pot. It's awesome."

Spahn now leads the Northeastern VFW post.

Northeastern said it "has a proud, 100-year legacy of educating veterans and service members."

This segment aired on January 3, 2017.


Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live