Student Creates Commencement Stole to Honor Veterans and Enlistees
At commencement ceremonies in mid-May, graduating students donned special scarves to signify their service in the U.S. armed forces. And it's about time, noted Jeffrey D. Axton '11 (sociology), a 27-year-old Army sergeant who designed the stole for graduating UMass students who are military veterans or enlisted men and women. "The stole not only represents the service member, but at graduation people will see it— it puts an image in the public's eye," Axton says. "For me, it was one of those things, how come no one else has done this? So I took the initiative."
Axton and the UMass Office of Veteran Services believe UMass is one of the first academic institutions to honor students with military experience this way. A stole is an academic scarf that hangs around the neck with both ends draped over a person's shoulders. They are usually worn during commencement ceremonies to signify countries of origin and academic accomplishments.
At a time when the number of veterans going to college is increasing, Axton said he hopes the silver and maroon satin stoles inspire feelings of pride and dignity in military women and men taking part in graduation exercises. He also sees the stoles as a way to raise awareness about veterans and enlisted students on campuses. Because of their experience and older age, military men and women can feel isolated on a university campus, Axton says.
Axton, who has been in the Army for about 11 years, served a tour in Iraq from 2007 to 2008 and is now serving a deployed unit as a "stay behind," a liaison between the unit and the service men's and women's home life and family. "I make sure everything is OK stateside," says Axton, who plans to study part-time in the fall to allow him to continue serving with the Army.
The UMass graduation ceremonies featured other first-time recognitions of military students. Chancellor Robert C. Holub recognized service women and men during his commencement remarks and a UMass student, who is also a Marine, wore his dress uniform and carried an American flag as he led the graduates. "It is with pride that we are able to provide the educational foundations for these men and women who have made the sacrifices necessary to give service to our country," says Gloria V. Fox, director of commencement. "Recognition during our commencement ceremonies is a symbol of our heartfelt appreciation."
Where Are the Veterans?
The number of veterans at UMass grew by almost 35 percent this academic year, a gain driven in part by improved education benefits. There are now about 300 veterans or enlisted students enrolled at UMass. Last year, there were about 200. Nationwide, the number of veterans enrolled at colleges and universities is expected to rise in the coming years as soldiers enlisted in the nation's two foreign wars seek new skills following discharge from service.
Still, veterans and enlisted people can feel like an unwelcome minority on campuses. Judy A. Gagnon, coordinator for UMass' veterans services drop-in center, said the transition from battlefield to classroom can be difficult for soldiers. They may find it hard to connect with the concerns of civilian students and may treat their professors like commanding officers instead of teachers.
A perceived anti-war sentiment on campus can also cause some military men and women to keep their service to themselves, Gagnon says. For example, there are about 100 veterans and enlisted service members in the UMass Class of 2010, Gagnon said, but only 22 opted to wear the stole. "Some veterans feel uncomfortable about saying that they're veterans," says Gagnon. Still, she says, having a quarter of eligible people wearing stoles the first year they are available is a good accomplishment. "We're trying to build awareness about student veterans on campus and [convey to veterans] that they should be proud…and not feel like they have to hide [that fact]." Recognizing military students during graduation could go a long way to helping them become more integrated in the community.
"It takes a lot of courage for someone to go overseas and fight in a war and then come back being 23 or 24 years old, not being the age of the traditional college student," Axton says. "It takes a lot of self-motivation to go and achieve an education. Hopefully the students, the population, will embrace this and the veterans will realize they've earned it."
This is the first year the stoles are available, but it won't be the last. Axton won a $1,600 grant from the UMass Student Affairs and Cultural Enrichment Fund to design and order the stoles.They were sold for $15 each to military students as well as faculty. Axton and Gagnon said they would like to give the stoles to veterans and enlisted men and women for free, but they need to keep a pool of money available to order and spread awareness about the stoles. They have started a collection to purchase stoles for veterans. Donations can be made to UMass Veterans Affairs, 227 Whitmore Administration Building, 181 Presidents Drive, Amherst, MA 01003. Write "stoles" in the memo line.
Adapted from a longer piece by Kristin Palpini that was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 5/13/10.