When Bonita Rodriguez left the U.S. Marines in 2015, she wasn’t planning to take on a new set of leadership responsibilities. It was Rodriguez’s sense of leadership that saw her become involved with her university’s chapter of the Student Veterans of America and eventually become the national student organization’s 2020 Student Veteran of the Year.
Rodriguez said it was her Master Gunnery Sergeant who “voluntold” her to start looking into colleges and other career plans outside of the military. Rodriguez, who described herself as somewhat timid, chose to attend Pace University in New York for its veteran-friendly reputation. Still, she was attending school on the other side of the country from her friends and family in Oregon and still adjusting to life without the strict structure of the military.
“You’re going back to the real world and you’re like ‘what do I do with myself, how do I do this,” Rodriguez said. “No one is telling you how to do anything, you’ve got to figure it out on your own again.”
Despite that lack of structure, Rodriguez soon found she was not alone on campus. There were other veterans all around her and they reached out to tell her about the Student Veterans of America (SVA).
The group, formed somewhat like a fraternity, has over 1,500 chapters at universities all across the country. Among those chapters, the organization represents over 750,000 students. The group’s advocacy ranges from helping student veterans stay involved in higher education at the individual to veteran scholarships and promoting the expansion of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
“I don’t like posting what I do. I don’t like telling people what I’ve done,” she said. “I just appreciate when I was in the transition and I was stuck in this ‘I’m not talking to anyone, I’m not asking any questions, I’ll figure it out on my own’ kind of thing and then these people were forcing it out of me. Other veterans were helping me out.”
For Rodriguez, the SVA’s mission took on a personal significance as its members reached out to her as a student veteran and she worked to pay the favor forward to other student veterans like her. Rodriguez said other SVA members chose to extend their friendship to her and in turn she said she chose to do the same.
Rodriguez turned her free time outside of school towards identifying and making new connections between her SVA chapter and new veteran programs. Among some of her efforts, she said she found organizations that would help the veterans in her chapter prepare their resumes and find job placements out of school. She said her efforts also included “forcing” some student veterans to get involved and encouraging them to attend SVA meetings.
She persisted with the SVA’s mission and by 2019 she had graduated from Pace University with a bachelor’s in information technology and gained her own internship with NBC Universal.
Rodriguez and her chapter’s success were highlighted by the SVA during the organization’s national conference at the beginning of January. Rodriguez was not just a successful student veteran, but the winner of the organization’s 2020 Student Veteran of the year award.
William Hubbard, the chief of staff for SVA said their student veteran award process typically begins with visits to many of the organization’s individual chapters.
“In our interactions with [Rodriguez] we found very quickly that she was an effective leader, well respected by her community and found a way to really engage beyond the veteran population,” Hubbard said.
After finding its list of top contenders, Hubbard said the SVA runs an additional round of peer nominations. He said the organization then asks those nominees to complete a “fairly comprehensive” application. Those applications are then vetted and selected down to a top ten list, wherein one individual is chosen as the organization’s student veteran of the year. In every part of the selection process, Rodriguez’s name continued to appear near the top of the SVA’s list.
“The finalists are all considered to essentially be our top chapter leaders in the country, and really picking one is actually a pretty tough process,” Hubbard said.
Among its other advocacy efforts, the SVA also studies what contributes to academic success among veterans, through its National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST). Hubbard said that a key indicator for a veteran to complete college is if they have a friend.
Hubbard said Rodriguez, in particular, stood out as a great representative of the SVA’s mission.