When Marine Corps heavy machine gunner Erik DeGiorgi returned to his native Plymouth in 2005, the South Shore town seemed nearly as foreign as the endless valleys his unit cleared in Afghanistan.
“I had changed. I didn’t know how to even communicate with my friends and family here,” he said. “Our unit in Afghanistan, we were the first ones there. Our job was to push north and gain territory, and it was just day-to-day. Coming back was an extreme change and I didn’t know how to deal with it . . . I was hugely adrift.”
But on Saturday, DeGiorgi stood at a podium in front of fellow veterans and high-level political leaders as an Ivy League student, a successful entrepreneur, and the point person of a new state initiative to help Massachusetts’s roughly 8,500 student veterans.
DeGiorgi is the executive director of the Massachusetts Student Veteran Advisory Board, a newly formed subcommittee of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veteran Services that is set to issue a report this week on how the state can better serve student veterans.
Along with student veteran groups from around the state, the board hosted the first annual Student Veterans Appreciation Day at Northeastern University Saturday, which attracted dozens of veterans, non-profit groups, and officials like Department of Veteran Services Secretary Coleman Nee.
The board, comprising veterans from several branches of the military and civilian researchers and administrators, based its recommendations on a series of open meetings with student veterans. Those students voiced frustrations over obstacles ranging from the inconsistent administration of benefits to the isolation they felt as veterans on campuses dominated by younger, civilian students.
The report will recommend that universities and colleges in Massachusetts appoint a dedicated staff member to assist student veterans, and that smaller schools with just a handful of student veterans partner with larger institutions. Additionally, it asks the state to help arrange consistent training for college administrators who handle benefits and for the leaders of student veteran groups. The report will also suggest that schools give student veteran groups a dedicated meeting space on campus.
Finally, the report found that each college and university treats military experience differently, creating frustrating discrepancies for veterans deciding between schools that award full college credit for classes taken in the military and those that offer little or no credit. The board will ask the state’s public universities to standardize their credit transfer policies.
Nee said Massachusetts leads the nation in per-capita spending on veterans services, but that there is still work to be done, particularly with student veterans.
“A lot of these guys are way older than the other students in class, and it can feel like no one else has an appreciation for what they’ve been through,” Nee said. “If we can hook them up with peers who can say, ‘look, I was three klicks up road from you, I went through the same challenges . . . you can do school,’ that’s huge.”
The number of student veteran groups is ballooning, according to Student Veterans of America, a network of campus groups that has grown from 20 chapters in 2008 to more than 800 today, including 12 in Massachusetts.
For DeGiorgi, higher education was the key to escaping the “downward spiral” that started when he was discharged. Pressed by worried friends and family members, he went to a Veterans Administration office and asked for help. Soon, DeGiorgi was taking classes at Lesley University and the Art Institute of Boston, where he found himself connecting with other people for the first time in years.
“The other students were so different, but so accepting and interested in what I went through,” he said. “It became my new method of service to give this population of interested people a firsthand account. It was hard, but in the end, all that sharing and writing was cathartic.”
Today, DeGiorgi runs an international computer hardware business with his father. Their machines help power the landmark WGBH billboard over the Massachusetts Turnpike . He is also studying at Harvard Business School, and has taken classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His intellectual appetite ranges from the finer points of American history (his favorite author is Howard Zinn) to mind-bending algorithms that dictate how objects fold in three-dimensional space.
That academic success is all the sweeter because DeGiorgi had never been much of a student, graduating near the bottom of his high school class and getting expelled from eighth grade.
“I used school as an opportunity to redefine myself. I was lacking purpose, I was lacking direction, and lacking understanding of who I was,” he said. “Now, I’ve sat in classrooms at MIT and Harvard with the smartest people in the world, and it feels good. It feels real good.”
Asked what advice he would give to veterans who are unsure about going to school, DeGiorgi has a simple message.
“A lot of people come back and say, ‘I was a machine gunner, what the hell do I have to offer?’ ” he said. “But the professionalism, attention to detail, commitment, follow-through — all the core values that you develop in the military — have a direct translation into the classroom. You have to get in there.”