Gene Ferraro, Senior Assistant Director of Academic Advising for the Lesley University Center for the Adult Learner (LCAL), is the driving force behind the new Veterans’ Resource Center and Lounge on campus. He’s also, by his own admission, a talker. At 10:00 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning, when most are just downing their first cup of coffee, he is electric. He’s ready to reflect on a topic that is close to his heart: veterans’ rights.
Despite advocating for veterans so passionately, Ferraro has never been to war himself. Instead, his need to take action stems from his love for his close friend, a former student named Eric. When Ferraro met him, Eric was “recently back from Afghanistan” after enrolling in the
service at just seventeen years old. Ferraro explains, “About ten years ago, there was a young man who literally showed up on the
doorstep of the Adult Learning Division. I remember walking out and seeing him. He looked distressed. I introduced myself and asked him if he needed anything… We went upstairs to my office and we talked. Within a month, he had started a program [at Lesley] because he was ready to, because he needed that in his life.”
That chance meeting led to an instant friendship. For Ferraro, it was also a learning opportunity, with Eric filling in the gaps in his knowledge about the veteran experience. Sometimes it was a steep learning curve, Ferraro admits. He recalls his well-meaning suggestion
to a younger Eric, who wanted to start classes at Lesley as soon as possible, to “take a memoir writing course that [he] was teaching.” In Ferraro’s mind, this made perfect sense; it was his course, so Eric would have a guaranteed spot in a class taught by a familiar face.
However, Ferraro later realized that he had made a grave mistake. In his memoir-writing course, “[Students] were writing at least twice a week and [they] had to read [their pieces]. [They] couldn’t not read. By my second week I thought, ‘What have I done to this guy who just came out of Afghanistan?’” Ferraro has since learned a lot more about what it means to serve. Before meeting Eric, Ferraro confesses, “I was naive about [all] of this. It never occurred to me.”
Would the Center ever have transpired without Eric’s impact? Ferraro responds, “It’s not that I wouldn’t have done it, it’s that I wouldn’t have even know to do it. As you start meeting veterans [like Eric], you can’t not develop that passion. It’s mind-blowing what people have done, what people have seen, [and] what we don’t know.”
Ferraro’s encounter with Eric sparked a passion for veterans’ rights that culminated in the Center’s opening. The Veterans’ Resource Center and Lounge, “which has been officially open since November 8, 2019,” is a space for veterans or their family members to relax on the Porter
Campus. It’s a place to do homework, meet other students, or access veterans’ resources.
I raised the argument that some might question the need for a veteran-specific space. After all, veterans statistically make up such a small part of our Lesley population. There are “roughly seventy” veteran students, including family members of veterans, on a campus of thousands. Why is there a need for Veterans’ Centers on college campuses like Lesley’s, even when there may be very few veteran students?
“I don’t like to put people in boxes… but I do believe that the veteran student population has very specific needs that aren’t always public,” Ferraro stresses. In his eyes, separating veterans’ needs from the needs of non-veteran students is a way to make sure they’re “identified and
addressed appropriately.” The Center is “a space where veterans can meet other veterans,” but also a place for those who have served “to be acknowledged for who they are and what they’ve done.”
So far, the reaction to Lesley’s Veterans’ Center has been overwhelming. Ferraro’s goal of bringing veterans together has become a reality; he says that talk of the Center has begun to reverse a culture of silence among veteran students. In the classroom, Ferraro said, students are
becoming more comfortable with talking about their veteran status. “It had never come out before… and I wanted that connection,” he explains. Faculty and staff support for the center has been equally positive.
How positive? Ferraro gestured towards a small counter area, pointing out a Keurig coffee maker that Nathaniel Mays, Dean of Students, personally donated to the Center. Other departments donated their unused furniture to the Center to make it cozy and welcoming. Many faculty members showed their support by attending the opening ceremony in November, contributing to the turnout of over seventy people. “If someone has a title here, they’ve come forward to support this. That’s the truth,” Ferraro affirms.
Momentum is continuing to build, which makes it even more difficult for Ferraro to come to terms with the fact that he’s a few months away from retirement. As Ferraro prepares to close out his career, he’s eager to, as he puts it, get “a number of plans in effect… in a very brief amount of time.” For starters, he’s hired a student worker named Steve, whom he calls a “phenomenal man,” to help carry out his planned initiatives. Steve is an LCAL student and a “thirty year veteran.” Outside of Lesley, Steve works in veterans’ services, so he has plenty of knowledge on how to help students at Lesley. As Ferraro says, “He knows everything and everyone.”
Some of his ideas include “an advisory board,” with veteran students like Steve and faculty members who have served acting as board members. Members will be working to plan and implement veterans’ programming, like a “speaker series” that will bring a special guest to
campus at least “once every three months.” Ferraro’s ultimate goal with the Center is, of course, to provide services to veterans in need.
While Ferraro is proud of what the Center is able to offer, veterans have “housing needs, medical needs, [and] tax needs” that can’t be resolved at Lesley. That’s where Brighton Marine comes in.
Based out of Brighton, MA, it is a “collaborative of veterans’ services” designed to fill in the gaps. Ferraro applied for membership in Brighton Marine “on behalf of Lesley University” and was accepted. This means that veteran students at Lesley will have “access for free” to healthcare
and “veterans’ housing on a sliding scale,” among other offerings. After Ferraro’s departure, this partnership will continue to benefit dozens of eligible students.
Once he has retired, Ferraro intends to stay in touch with the veterans’ community. “I know that in some way, shape, or form, I will do something with veterans,” he states. It’s hard to imagine a world in which he strays far from this cause, one that is so near and dear to
him. Ferraro can barely contain a smile as he talks about his work. “It makes me very happy and very proud,” he adds, beaming. Students looking to get involved should email email@example.com for more information. The website is here: https://lesley.edu/students/campus-services/veterans-resource-center-and-lounge