ASU recognizes graduating veterans with honor stoles

Veterans Graduation Reception stoles

Overcoming tough challenges is nothing new to military veterans. On May 9, student vets at ASU received special stoles to recognize their service and celebrate their conquering the challenge of earning a college degree.

Nearly half of this spring’s 328 graduating veterans attended a reception at Old Main on Tempe campus to receive honor stoles, adorned with the seal of the veteran’s branch of service, the Arizona State University seal, and the word “veteran.” The stoles are worn over academic regalia at commencement and college convocation ceremonies.

The ASU Alumni Association organized the Veterans Graduation Reception in coordination with the Pat Tillman Veterans Center.

“I love ASU and think they have one of the best support systems for veterans,” said Hillary LaFever-Ceja, an Army veteran and student graduating with a degree in nutrition. “The Pat Tillman Veterans Center is fantastic at what they do as far as processing claims and providing guidance, but that’s the minimum I believe any school should provide, and they go beyond that.”

LaFever-Ceja, who served in Iraq, loves the stole ceremony concept and believes it is important to recognize that many groups of non-traditional students face unique challenges that others don’t.

Her fellow student veteran Luis Cardenas Camacho is also a fan of the ceremony and credits the university.

“I think the veteran stoles are representative of ASU’s commitment to the veteran community,” said Camacho, a Marine combat veteran and president of ASU’s Student Veterans of America downtown chapter. “ASU is one of the top schools for military in the U.S. They take this title to heart and do their best to provide veterans all the tools they need to accomplish their academic goals.”

Ceremony attendees were treated to inspirational remarks from guest speaker and City of Tempe Councilmember Robin Arredondo-Savage. Her message was simple: Pay it forward.

“I know each and every one of you believe in service,” she said. “I too believe in service, and I hope it doesn’t stop here.”

Arredondo-Savage encouraged the vets to stay involved, whether that's by staying connected with ASU, mentoring students, helping other veterans or serving their communities in other capacities.

“There are so many great things, so many valuable things that you guys bring to the table that so many others don’t,” said Arredondo-Savage. “Your dedication, your teamwork, your leadership, your skills, those are truly gifts.”

Arredondo-Savage told the audience that it can be as simple as making a difference in one person’s life, just as someone may have done in their lives by caring and making time for them.   

“I hope if nothing else that you inspire another person, because if you are ready to inspire another person, that makes change,” she said. “That makes change not only in that person’s life but in the community, in the city, in the state and in this country. And to me that is exactly why we’re here, to make this the very best place it can be.”

The councilmember, also an Army veteran, expressed confidence in the vets as they pursue careers and find their path in life.

“I know you’re all going to be successful,” she said.

One of those on the path to success is graduate student Evan Benson, a Marine combat vet and civil engineering major. Despite being severely wounded in Afghanistan, he persevered to achieve his educational goals.  

“I feel accomplished now that it’s sinking in that I’m actually getting my masters,” said Benson. “It was a long road to get here and I went through a lot … from suffering a traumatic brain injury and not knowing if I would be capable of absorbing difficult undergraduate engineering curriculum, let alone a graduate curriculum.”

Benson credits others for his success, from the medical staff who treated him in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is also grateful to the American taxpayers who make it possible for veterans to complete their education by funding the GI Bill. And he praises ASU staff.

“The Pat Tillman Veterans Center was an integral part of my success, and it’s a first-of-its-kind center created specifically to help students achieve their academic goals,” he said. “In addition to the Tillman center, the Fulton School of Engineering has great faculty that have helped me every step of the way. They happily make themselves available outside classroom hours to ensure student success.”

Benson hsa accepted a full-time position with a Boston-based engineering company where he interned. He starts the new job in June.  

The student veterans also have words of wisdom and advice for those leaving the military.

“The fact is that even though our mission overseas might be over, our service at home is not,” said Camacho, a public service and public policy major and political activist. “It is our duty to educate ourselves and be the leaders our country needs us to be.”

Camacho, who was born in Mexico and served three combat tours in Iraq, helped produce a documentary about deported veterans and lobbied for immigration reform in Washington D.C. alongside Arizona political leaders.

LaFever-Ceja offers more practical advice to school-bound veterans: She recommends finding a support system, whether family, veteran organizations or other groups.

“It’s going to be vital that there are people who can guide you back to civilian life,” she said. “The military has become better at assisting with transition, but there’s little that can truly prepare you for leaving the military behind.”

She also recommends veterans pace themselves academically.  Oftentimes new vets will take 18 credits or more per semester when starting out.

“Veterans have this tendency to think that they can take on the world,” she said. “You are perfectly capable of that course load, but later, not your first semester.”

Benson offers words of wisdom for Americans at large who may have misperceptions about combat veterans. Sometimes there are negative connotations about veteran psychological issues.

“Although we’ve had difficult circumstances during wartime, we’ve come back stronger and are ready to become the nation’s leaders in engineering, teaching, business, etc.,” he said. “We aren’t crippled or entitled, but we’ve been through hell and we’ll take those lessons learned to better ourselves and our communities.”

ASU’s veteran population stands at around 3,700 students and is expected to grow.