By Brelyn Powell
After he earned his master’s degree in the VCU School of Business, Thomas Burton (M.B.A.’82/B) worked in finance for more than 25 years. Then, in 2010, he returned to campus to share his experiences in the field with undergraduate and graduate business students as an adjunct professor.
“So much had changed,” Burton says, citing the growing diversity on campus. “I was getting to see VCU from both sides — the student I had been decades ago, and then as a teacher. When I was a student, I felt like most students on campus were from Virginia or nearby areas, but as a professor, I saw that students were coming to campus from all over the world with so many different backgrounds and paths to VCU.”
The student population that impressed Burton the most, however, were student veterans.
“I was pleasantly surprised that I had so many students in my classes who were veterans, mostly coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “They were great students, too. They were a little bit older than the average student. Most were 25-28 years old and wise beyond their years, matured by their experiences overseas.”
Burton’s memories of these students were front of mind when he and his wife made a $1,000 donation to VCU’s Military Student Services fund in January 2020. The gift was also inspired by their personal connections to the military through their son, Alex, who is an officer in the U.S. Navy, as well as Burton’s longtime friendship with Stephen Ross, director of VCU Military Student Services.
Burton and Ross have been friends since childhood. Their friendship today is deeply rooted in the shared experience of being a parent to a military service member. Ross, whose son, Drew, died while serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan in 2018, has been grateful to have a friend who understands the complex combination of emotions parents experience while their sons or daughters are deployed, worrying for their safety while also being immeasurably proud of their courage and character.
“Tom and I had many conversations about my son’s service, and as my friends, he and his wife experienced my loss with me when my son died,” says Ross, who has his own record of service with four years in the U.S. Air Force. “We both raised sons who ended up serving our country in the military, and that is something that we are both so proud of as fathers.”
The Burtons plan to sustain their support for VCU student veterans with annual gifts to the Military Student Services fund going forward, and hope others will join them.
“We made our donation to honor Stephen and his son, but also because teaching at VCU for four years showed me the caliber of its student veterans,” Burton says. “People often encounter veterans and thank them for their service, but this fund provides an opportunity to make a real impact on student veterans at VCU.”
In his role at VCU, Ross works with VCU’s student veterans every day. He created the Military Student Services fund in 2016 to generate the funding he needs to help create a community of support for these students on campus.
“We want to host things like graduation celebrations to acknowledge our veteran students and their accomplishments, or retreats to get them all together to build camaraderie,” Ross says. “Student veterans often express interest in these sort of events, but they have a unique set of financial limitations. In many cases, they are in school full time while trying to pay their bills and keep their family life together. Donor support could help us make these opportunities available without having to have student veterans pay out of pocket for them.”
Ross also hopes to eventually have the funds to offer emergency funding to help student veterans stay on track toward graduation.
“Sometimes these students file for their military benefits later than we would like and this causes delays in funding,” he explains. “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can’t move but so fast, so having an emergency fund could help a student veteran get by until their benefits begin.”
Gifts like Burton’s, Ross says, are invaluable in creating an environment for student veterans to thrive at VCU.
“Any support that we can provide helps build our veteran community and make VCU a more veteran-friendly university,” he says.
To learn more about supporting student veterans and the Military Student Services fund, contact Chad Krouse, Ed.D. (Ed.D.’18/E), assistant vice president for university development at (804) 828-2346) or firstname.lastname@example.org, or make a gift online.