UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Penn State prepares to celebrate the opening of its new, $4 million Student Veteran Center, Penn State Today sat down with the man who’s spearheaded that effort, Eugene McFeely, to talk about his thoughts and goals for the new center.
McFeely is Penn State’s first senior director for veterans affairs and services and began serving in the position in January 2017. A 1989 Penn State electrical engineering alumnus, McFeely served in the U.S. Air Force for 27 years, retiring at rank of colonel. Before being appointed as senior director, he was a professor of aerospace studies at the University and was commander of Detachment 720 in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps on campus.
In his current role, McFeely coordinates the various units that provide services and administer programs to veterans; advocates for increasing the visibility of veteran student services and benefits through implementing innovative programs and new approaches; and develops events to recognize the service of veterans to the nation.
Penn State Today: You’re the first person to hold the title of senior director of veterans affairs and services at Penn State. What does it mean to you?
McFeely: It’s not so much about me, but what it empowers me to do for our student veterans. It’s taking all of the good things we as Penn State do for the student veteran community, and tying it all together so we can offer the most effective programs and services for the veteran community. I want to make sure that student veterans who attend Penn State — whether it’s here at University Park, at our Commonwealth Campuses, or through World Campus — get a normalized experience and don’t have to spend time fighting the system or worrying about policies.
Penn State Today: What do you look forward to most when you get up in the morning?
McFeely: Two things make me jump out of bed in the morning: First and foremost, it’s the people — the community, the young men and women that have served this country who are now seeking opportunity. Anything I can do to help them along their path, to help them realize their goals and dreams using higher education, I find that very empowering. Second is opportunity. Dr. [Eric] Barron has really empowered me and others to take advantage of everything this institution has to offer, and the sky’s the limit for what we can do for this community.
Penn State Today: What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
McFeely: The biggest challenge is hitting that sweet spot, where we as an institution see and identify a need, and where student veterans actually will take advantage of a program that resonates with them. It’s figuring out where the perceived gap in services and programming is, and coming in with just the right touch of how to fill that gap at the end of the day.
Penn State Today: What’s your typical interaction with student veterans like? What are you hearing from them?
McFeely: Particularly at University Park, they’re very appreciative of the outreach and the help they receive transitioning to the University. That’s consistently what I hear. I think they’re appreciative of the fact that the University makes veterans a priority, that they created this position I’m in to look out for them, that they have someone who can talk with them about issues, processes or experiences at the end of the day.
Penn State Today: With the center now a reality, what’s the next thing you’d like to address?
McFeely: I’d love to see a dedicated, in-house career counselor for our veterans and military community. The reason I say that is our veterans sometimes need help translating all of that military experience to their job applications and resumes. The 'a ha' moment for me was when I was sitting in a seminar class. As part of it, people were asked to write a resume. One student veteran said, 'I’m not even going to put my military stuff on there because it’s too hard to figure out how to translate it.' I said, 'What? This is the one asset you have that significantly differentiates you from your peers.' So the Office of Veterans Programs helped him make those translations — 'I know how to be a follower. I know how to be an excellent leader. I know how to work in a team and build teams.' What it comes down to is they’ve done things on limited time, with limited resources, in hostile environments, in order to achieve a goal or mission. I told him, 'That’s the one thing you have that a lot of students on campus don’t, and it’s what distinguishes you as a student veteran.'
Penn State Today: Where do you see the Student Veteran Center in five, ten years?
McFeely: Ultimately, it’s about the student experience. We want to make sure that as these student veterans transition from service to academia, we provide the programs and services to make that a smooth experience. And while they’re at Penn State, they can become fully immersed in the student body, joining student clubs and not spending a lot of time in the Student Veteran Center until it’s time for their next transition, which is out to pursue another degree or employment. But we want the center to be there as a safety net during their whole time, so they can tag in and tag out as needed, and when it’s time to transition out, we’re there to help them with that as well.
Penn State Today: Do you have any advice for young people who are at the start of their careers?
McFeely: The reason why our country as a whole — despite all of the negativity that’s going on right now — is the way it is and why there’s opportunity in this country, is because our citizens have done things to make our country better. Everyone has a stake in the country and has the capacity to do something to make this country better, whether it’s using their talents to serve in the military or doing something to boost their local community. In some way, shape or form, we all need to give back to our country. As citizens, we all have a responsibility to make things better.