Wright lauded for work with G.I. bill, wounded veterans

by Michael Coburn | 9/24/08 4:00am

In recent years, College President James Wright has expanded his work outside of Dartmouth, garnering national attention for his efforts to increase educational opportunities for U.S. veterans. Most notably, Wright, who started an initiative to provide college counseling to wounded veterans, worked with members of Congress to design the new G.I. bill, which dramatically expanded veterans' college-tuition benefits for the first time since World War II.

Wright began his work with veterans wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, when, inspired by the heavy casualties incurred by the Marines that summer, he began visiting military hospitals across the country to speak with veterans about their higher-education options.

"I realized as I was talking to these young men and women that they had specific questions about college," Wright said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "What we needed to find was some way to tie these wounded veterans to specific programs."

As a result, Wright, in conjunction with the American Council on Education, started a pilot program, "Severely Injured Military Veterans: Fulfilling their Dreams," an academic advisory service to support and develop the educational and career goals of severely injured veterans.

The program is now in place at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, and so far has provided college counseling services to over 200 wounded veterans since its inception in Feb. 2007. For his part, Wright has spent time at the hospital and worked to help raise funds to cover the program's initial costs. He added that they were easily able to raise the $350,000 to start up the program and hopes to expand it.

"[Wright] has that leadership quality that prompts you not to want to disappoint him," James Selbe, director of Program Evaluations for ACE, said. "When I shared with him some of the barriers, he wouldn't let me be deterred. He encouraged me and continued to impress upon me the importance of doing this."

Wright was named "New Englander of the Year" by the New England Council in July 2007 for his work.

Wright was also a vocal proponent of a new G.I. bill, which was signed in June 2008. Wright collaborated with Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., the principal author of the bill, which gives veterans full in-state tuition and fees for four academic years, plus a $1,000 stipend.

The previous G.I. bill offered veterans only $9,000 per year, which, according to Wright, did not come close to covering the cost of a four-year college.

Wright actively lobbied private schools and higher education organizations to support the G.I. bill and persuaded Senator Webb to include in the legislation federal matching funds to private universities who want to provide tuition benefits to veterans. Webb's office said they were grateful for Wright's help.

"[Wright] has been tremendously instrumental in building momentum and elevating the conversation around the need for a 21st-century G.I. bill," a spokeswomen for Senator Webb said.

The bill was initially opposed by the White House and Department of Defense, which worried it would dampen reenlistment rates, but was signed by President George W. Bush after Democrats dropped demands for a tax increase to fund the legislation and allowed veterans who reenlist to transfer their tuition benefits to their children. The bill was also supported by presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

After his retirement in June 2009, Wright said he plans to continue working to ensure veterans can afford a college education.

"I will continue doing anything I can to help out," he said in an interview with The Dartmouth. "I keep thinking at this current supply of injured veterans is going to end but I thought that a couple years ago and it hasn't happened."

He added that he also plans to travel and continue his academic research.