Crowded into a committee room at the Capitol, a bipartisan group of legislators listened intently as they received an introduction to the University of Colorado Denver’s innovative “Boots to Suits” program. “Boots to Suits” offers student veterans real-world assistance transitioning from academia to a successful career.
The program was originally designed to pair the veterans with mentors in the business world through the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, but now it’s marching in a new direction, seeking to enlist a new sector of volunteer mentors from public service and government. The new emphasis comes in direct response to the career interests of CU Denver’s diverse veteran population.
The room fell silent as Veteran Student Services Director Cameron Cook outlined the major issues confronting student veterans across the country, including post-traumatic stress disorder, transitioning from a structured to unstructured environment, and the challenge of applying military skills and experience to a professional environment.
CU Denver Vice Chancellor of Communications Leanna Clark listed discouraging statistics about veterans in the workforce, telling the legislators that 223,000 total veterans and 30 percent of veterans age 18- 24 are unemployed. “It’s because of these startling statistics and issues faced that we created CU Denver Boots to Suits,” Clark explained.
Included in the audience was Ashley Metcalf, a sociology major and president of CU Denver’s Veterans Student Organization, and his legislative mentor, Sen. Nancy Todd, (D), District 28. Their mentorship relationship is already under way, and she was the first legislator to enlist in the program.
Todd is the former Chair of State Veteran and Military Affairs in the House, and Metcalf first met her during a special session on civil unions. “I’d never attended a committee hearing before, and her words were inspiring,” remembers Metcalf. “One of my best experiences so far was watching her interact with her constituents at a town hall meeting. For me, the most important part of public office is being accessible and observing her interactions was priceless.”
Although it’s early in Metcalf’s mentorship, Todd is already set to re-enlist. “Working with Ashley, I have developed a better understanding of the varied aspects of transition our veterans make as they explore a ‘life after their military service.’ The feedback after the presentation from my fellow legislators was very positive. First they asked what the time commitment was and then they asked how they could sign up. If we get five or six to participate, I would consider that a great success.”
Clark and the administrators of “Boots to Suits” agree. “Our student veterans have earned this opportunity,” she said. “Our goal with this presentation was to raise our profile with the legislators and to gain their respect.”
Izzy Abbaas, Boots to Suits program director, was grateful to see so many legislators attend. “This shows that supporting the men and women who have served our nation so faithfully is not a partisan issue but an issue all Americans and Coloradoans can get behind.”
Abbaas added that he is optimistic about the new direction the program is taking, describing it as a “flexible, living program” which easily adapts to the individual needs of veteran students.
As CU Denver’s “Boots to Suits” program approaches its one-year anniversary, it continues to expand and evolve. And so do student veterans like Metcalf. He spent nearly a year and a half serving with the Air Force in places like Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he’s ready to continue serving, right here at home. “In five years, I expect to be in elected office,” he says proudly. “Someday I plan to be in the Legislature. Maybe I’ll even be a senator, like Senator Todd.”
CU Denver’s veteran student enrollment jumped 300 percent from 2009- 2012 and is expected to continue growing. The key to keeping pace is retaining current “Boots to Suits” mentors and recruiting new ones in the Legislature, in business and beyond.