William and Mary's Mentorship Program Helps Veterans Adapt William and Mary's Mentorship Program Helps Veterans Adapt

William and Mary’s mentorship programs help veterans re-adjust to life outside of the military.

WILLIAMSBURG – At the College of William and Mary, there’s no lack of veteran resources. However, in the coming years, the school plans to offer even more.

“William and Mary has so many programs to help veterans,” said Bob Merkl, William and Mary’s special assistant to the president for military and veteran affairs.

One program centers around veterans that made careers of out the military, but now seek intern roles. Another focuses on wellness, mindfulness and holistic health. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for veterans programs at the college.

Several of the programs have overarching themes of helping veterans with mental struggles they encountered as a result of serving in high-stress areas. The college strives to help those battling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and other mental health issues to be well in mind, body and relational health.

“There’s just a whole lot of great work that’s going on in the whole of the Government Center for Excellence,” Merkl said.

In September, the college received an anonymous $10 million donation designated toward propelling the college’s veteran transition offerings forward.

A new program

Helping veterans transition is not only something that spark’s Merkl’s passion; it’s something with which he’s personally familiar. Merkl grew up in a military family, the son of a 30-year veteran.

Merkl followed in his father’s footsteps and became a career military serviceman for 23 years. He retired in 1998.

However, the country he fought for almost felt like a foreign land.

“By the time I reached my mid-40s and was retiring myself from the military, that’s all I had ever known. I mean, I grew up with it as a kid and then I went to West Point. Right out of West Point, I spent 23 years on active duty,” Merkl said. “So when it was time for me to retire, I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t know anything about the outside world. The only culture that I understood was the culture of the military. The only language that I spoke was the military language. I really didn’t know how to translate what I had done into something that an employer would understand and value.”

Paving the way

Although eventually successful, Merkl’s transition period wasn’t easy. Navigating a differently structured word came with challenges.

“I had a lot of stereotypes about the outside world, just like the outside world had a lot of stereotypes about me. Part of the learning curve that you have to go through is understanding that a lot of what you’ve learned, you have to relearn – and you don’t even know what you don’t know,” Merkl said.

The 23-year veteran paved his own path, but didn’t want the same for others. When the college received the $10 million anonymous donation, they used some of the funds to create Merkl’s position. Given his life experience, he seemed perfect for the job. Now, he helps others in a role that he didn’t have.

“It becomes very valuable to have a mentor and people helping you go through that transition. I didn’t have one at the time, so I learned a lot of lessons the hard way,” Merkl said. “What we’re trying to do with this program is to set folks up with people that have already been through this process, who understand what they’re going to encounter and help them better prepare themselves for it.”

A premiere experience

With approximately 85,000 active duty veterans residing in the Hampton Roads area, Merkl noted that between 12,000 and 15,000 annually transition out of the military. He expressed hope that the various veteran offerings at the college could aid the servicemen and women in the area.

“If you think of it in terms of being a good community citizen, it’s a valuable service to offer that population,” Merkl said. “The second piece of it is our programs seem to be more and more attractive to the veteran population. We have quite a healthy percentage of our MBA program who are veterans. So we have a large population here at home that we want to serve as well. It’s a combination of providing a very valuable and needed service to our own population here at William and Mary. And it’s also part of just being a good neighbor in the community.”

Program particulars

With the $10 million donation, the college will offer a mentorship program. That will be comprised of veterans who successfully transitioned into civilian life. It will pair a veteran new to civilian life with someone who already lived through that experience.

“[The donor] had observed that some of the people that she had helped place in senior civilian roles had a harder time than she expected them to have and she started wondering why that would be the case. She came to the conclusion, just as I described, that there’s a transition process that is very difficult for many people to negotiate,” Merkl said. “And so she thought, well, wouldn’t it be wonderful to start a program up at William and Mary – she’s obviously an alum – and use the resources here to try to put a program together that maybe the rest of the country could model over time?”

Merkl called the donor’s vision “innovative” and her generosity “gracious.”

“My greatest hope is that it is both self-sustaining and self-generating. What I mean by that is I envision a program that takes all of those great resources that I mentioned at the start and leverages them to their most efficient use so that we can provide more and more benefits to the veteran population at reduced costs,” Merkl said. “But at the same time, what I want to do is wrap programs around this that will greatly facilitate the transition and not just the experience while they’re here.”

A call to action

Even with passion and drive, the program won’t take off overnight. As with anything else, there’s planning before progress. However, Merkl discussed some of the main aspects the program will entail.

“Some of those key programs, I think are a very robust mentorship program that is personalized and tailored to the individual because everybody’s going to have a different experience. Everybody’s going to have a different learning curve,” Merkle said. “People will be going into different industries and different [vocations] that have different cultures. And so if you can really personalize the mentor-mentee relationship, I think that will be very valuable long-term.”

He also spoke about combining the program’s offerings with robust internship opportunities.

“While you’re here at William and Mary, your mentor is helping place you into where you might go next so that both the company gets a chance to see you and you get to see the company and develop a relationship and a network and almost a try-and-buy opportunity on both ends,” Merkl said.

Additionally, he hoped that those who found success outside of the military would come back to speak to other veterans in a lecture series.

“Ideally, what I would like to see is every generation, every cohort, continuing to pay it forward so that 20 years from now, a veteran who’s been through William and Mary who’s had the benefit of these programs and this mentor and intern position, now they’re a senior executive at an industry – maybe at the shipyard or something – they’re giving it back to a generation of the Class of 2040 at William and Mary and they’re doing the same thing,” Merkl said.

Looking ahead

In the future, William and Mary plans to bring even more veteran-focused assets to campus.

“We’re putting together a two-week pilot program for the May time frame where we’ll be working with the COMMIT Foundation to structure a program that is wrapped around both preparing yourself physically and mentally and spiritually for the transition, but also giving them the tools that they’re going to need to understand the new culture and language of the outside world that they’re transitioning into,” Merkl said.

Being on both sides of the spectrum – from career military to civilian life – Merkl expressed hope for the veteran-focused programs at William and Mary.

“I know how valuable a program is like this to the people that are involved and I think it’s a very innovative, generous program that our anonymous donor has set up,” Merkl said. “I couldn’t be more happy to be here and have the opportunity to try to get this thing up and running.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com