Man standing next to mural

Pat Tillman Veterans Center bids farewell to its first director

By

Marshall Terrill

Steve Borden, director of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, is leaving Arizona State University this month to take on a new mission.

The retired Navy captain is headed to National University in La Jolla, California, where he will be the first to take on the roll of associate vice president for military programs. Borden came to ASU in 2010 and has served as both the founding commanding officer of ASU’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and founding director of the Tillman Center.

The center provides a single point of contact for ASU veterans and their dependents, connecting them with academic and student support services to promote a smooth transition from the military and provide assistance for veterans benefits, deployments and referrals, as well as a place where veterans can gather for study groups and social activities. The university has approximately 9,200 military-affiliated students.

ASU Now spoke with Borden before he leaves his post on Dec. 16 to reflect on the last decade, the role of the Tillman Center and the state of veterans.

Question: With the Pat Tillman Veterans Center such a centerpiece of this university, it’s hard to imagine any university without a veterans center. Why are such centers needed on college campuses?

Answer: While in the military, service members have nearly everything scripted for them. The transition from a very strict hierarchical system with little flexibility and limited choices to a college campus where there is nobody directing your path and decisions can be overwhelming. Additionally, many schools are extremely focused on the traditional 18-year-old student and their service culture, communication style and general information is structured accordingly.

Veterans centers help veterans navigate this "foreign" culture. They are a place where a veteran feels safe asking what they may fear is a basic question, a place where they can disclose information about some of the things that are creating uncertainty or instability in their life and they are a place where they can connect with other students who are going, or have recently gone through, the same transition.

Q: You came to ASU specifically to set up the Pat Tillman Veterans Center. Can you speak about that undertaking and the amount of work it took to get it off the ground?

A: I actually came to establish the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) unit at Arizona State University in 2010. In late 2011, as I prepared to retire after more than 29 years in the Navy, the Pat Tillman Veterans Center was just opening and Paul LePore, associate dean in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences connected me with the job posting.

Starting the NROTC unit was easier than starting the veterans center because the end state was easy to describe and clearly define. Veterans centers were really just starting to show up on campuses and were clearly needed because of the large increase in veterans having access to college because of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

What did veterans really need to help them succeed? Were there differences between what veterans said they wanted/needed versus what they really needed? How could we tell? Why were veterans choosing ASU? What were they studying? Why?

There were definitely a lot more questions than answers at the beginning. In some cases we identified services that we were fairly certain that student veterans needed and in some cases they still did not use them. We had to re-evaluate whether the need was correctly identified and then maybe adjust the delivery method or timing to one that made more sense for the population we were serving.

It was a lot like trying to build a plane while flying it.

Q: There’s lots of noise out there about veterans, but ultimately what do veterans need from universities and the community?

A: First of all, it might be easier to say what veterans do not need. They do not need to be treated like they are heroes, and they definitely do not need to be treated like there is something wrong with them, like they are broken or like they have to be handled with kid gloves or they will fall apart.

I have come to believe that what they probably need more than anything else is to be treated like they are new to the community. Even a veteran that leaves the service and goes back to the place they grew up and where they were living before joining the service is going to experience something very different than they were expecting. The truth is they are not the same person that left to join the service; they have grown, stretched, done some incredibly challenging things, matured, learned — they are not the person that left. Similarly, communities change too; the place they left is not the same place to which they return.

They are not a stranger, but the community and the veteran would both be better off if they simply accepted the fact that things had changed and focused on adapting into a new, somewhat familiar, but different relationship.

The university setting is not different. Even if the veteran went to college before going into the service, things are going to be different than they were. It is also true that none of us know what we do not know. So when we presume that we know what is going on, when we assume that we do not need to ask any questions or that this new student to campus knows what is going on and how to navigate things simply because they look like they should know and act like they know what is going on, we are making a big mistake.

From the university side, the challenge is in being open and receptive to inquiry from students, to not be condescending, but to also not be presumptive about what they know. From the veteran side, the challenge is to recognize that it is OK, it is normal, it is acceptable to not have all the answers. It is OK to ask questions, it is all right that you do not have all the answers and you need to trust that it is OK to ask.

Q: Has your perspective on veterans changed from the time you started working here to now?

A: Without a doubt! I believe I heard it first from Wanda Wright, colonel (ret.), U.S. Air Force, and director, Arizona Department of Veteran Services. She said, “When you have met one veteran, you have met one veteran.” As a society, we try to pigeonhole people into groups, stereotypes, communities — and the reality is that people are individuals. Yes, we have certain things in common; yes, stereotypes develop based upon a certain element of truth, but it is just as true that we are each unique. What I have seen manifest itself, even in some of the answers I have provided to the questions for this article, is that there are guidelines that are true, but exactly where an individual encounters a problem, where their information falters, which circumstances they can navigate or which ones trip them up — these are unique to the individual. Guidelines can be established to generally help and try to assist as many as possible, but it is not a one-size-fits-all world.

Q: Can the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, which does so much already, evolve beyond what it is today?

A: Yes, and it needs to do so. We can always do things better. Maybe there are some things we are doing which are not necessarily the most productive things we can do. So, maybe it is not always a matter of doing things better, but trying to do better things.

Q: Did you achieve what you set up to achieve here, and what is your parting wish for the Veterans Center?

A: I achieved a lot of what I set up to achieve. No, actually, we achieved a lot of what we set out to achieve. The center’s strength right now is that there is a terrific team of folks working there, staff and students, that are committed to working together to create an environment that empowers students to achieve their goals and dreams. I am most proud of the fact that I can say, “If a student chooses to engage with the center, that student, each and every one of them, will have a better outcome than if they had not chosen to engage with the center.” For some this means moving the needle from might not finish, to definitely will earn my degree; for others, it means landing their dream job instead of "just" being employed. It is extremely rewarding to be part of providing the environment that enables success.

My parting wish for the center is to keep expanding the above. Keep working to touch more lives, to touch them sooner so that the effect that the teamwork creates will have longer to work, creating a better outcome. The Pat Tillman Veterans Center does not do this alone, but in partnership with other fantastic units and people around the university — keep building the relationships, make new ones and make the old ones stronger. I think this is a huge part of the namesake of the center and the legacy of Pat Tillman — he was always striving to make himself and the people around him better.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now