This Saturday, the University of Arizona will graduate one of its key contributors in making the UA campus one of the nation's most welcoming and integrated campuses for student veterans.
Matt Randle will graduate from the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a Bachelor of Science in family studies and human development, and he's a Robie Gold Medal winner.
The Tucson native founded and has served as director of the student-run UA Veterans Education and Transition Services office, known as the V.E.T.S. center. His road to graduation was one filled with starts and stops, the kind that the center works to overcome.
Randle joined the Army, and as a reservist went to basic training the summers during his high school junior and senior years. He went on to serve as a combat medic from 1998 to 2003 and was stationed in Korea and Ft. Bliss, Texas.
Randle's service includes two Army Commendation Medals, three Army Achievement Medals and two Good Conduct Medals, all leadership commendations that speak volumes about him but do not necessarily translate to a smooth integration to life outside of the military.
He returned to Tucson and began taking classes at Pima Community College "with zero direction. I was lost and angry and started self-medicating." He did maintain a 4.0 GPA but eventually quit and began working at the non-profit Vets4Vets organization in Tucson, providing peer support for other veterans.
During this time, Randle said friends were pressuring him to focus on school: "It was different to hear my friends pressuring me – to get advice to return to school from someone with equal footing."
In 2008, an advocating friend introduced Randle to UA President Robert N. Shelton, and the UA leader revealed his interest in making the UA campus the most veteran friendly one in the nation.
After hearing Randle's personal, financial and administrative challenges in committing to higher education, Shelton asked Randle to help get the UA veterans initiative under way on campus.
Randle held onto the idea of fellow veterans advising, supporting and assisting other veterans in the pursuit of higher education, and it would serve as the foundation of the UA V.E.T.S center.
"The GI Bill makes higher education possible, but the University's attitude and treatment of its student veterans makes graduation plausible," Randle said.
As student director, he implemented groundbreaking policies such as priority registration for GI Bill beneficiaries that maximize its effectiveness for veterans and their dependents attending college.
He also was responsible for expanding the V.E.T.S. office; the center went from a 200 square-foot room in Old Main to a 1,400 square-foot resource facility in the Student Union Memorial Center, expanding four times under his tenure. The results of his hard work enhanced a 25-visitor-per-week office to a center that serves more than 140 visitors daily and is staffed by eight VA work-study student veterans.
Randle's leadership also fostered an environment of involvement – the club holds the 2010 title of Club of the Year by ASUA and Chapter of the Year by the national Student Veterans of America club, a distinction given to a single campus in a competition of more than 320 schools in the U.S.
He pioneered more than 40 community service projects, implemented the first-ever student veteran, co-ed intramural athletic team and hosted several social events to bring the student veteran community closer. He fostered philanthropic endeavors with toy, food and clothing drives as well as coordinating building teams for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning vandalized trailheads, spearheading nonprofit fundraisers and initiating volunteer efforts at a local shelter.
The club has fun, too. He brings student veterans and their families together to network and create social responsibility and safety efforts through barbeques, formal dinners, poker nights, football tailgating, a spring break cruise, organized gun shoots and happy hours.
Randle said the difference was in making a community where veterans feel safe on campus that makes integration something that each student veteran on campus can pass on to the next generation.
"We push one another to realize that we are one component in a sea of humanity. As veterans can push and help one another to success and realize that the UA campus is our world but we have to find our place in it," Randle added.
Randle will begin pursuing a Juris Doctorate at the UA Roger’s College of Law in the fall.
Randle would like to thank the following people in his life for his success at the UA:
President Shelton, for having the foresight to invest in and support student veterans before it was the trendy thing to do;
The VETS Initiative team for allowing the student veterans voice to guide what we do;
Dr. Marks and Dr. Callahan for doing something groundbreaking because it was right;
Maralynn, Rick, Bill, Lorrie, Judy, M.E. and Chief Daykin for being friends, champions and most importantly willing listeners;
Dr. Chandler for being willing to think outside the box and help a struggling student veteran;
The DRC for making education accessible and Patty and Janet for making the DRC welcoming and non-threatening;
The student vets on campus for investing sweat equity in each other and the office, we are still making sure no one gets left behind;
Dan, Glen and Ricardo for being brothers enough to say no and keep the compass pointing North at all times;
Macias and Jensen-Jensen for coming all the way from Baghdad to Tucson.
Leaton for being unflappable and loyal for so many years now;
Taylor for the talk on the driving range; Anthony for calling people out to get the ball rolling;
TMFR and JFK for being thicker than blood;
Holly for your love, patience and support;
Jennifer Leigh for setting the example;
Dad and Jen for the faith in my ability to finish;
Mom for sacrificing so much for so long just to see today, no one may ever know how much you suffered so that I may succeed;
Finally to God, your love and forgiveness is more than we deserve and yet it is all that we need-- thank you.