Seventy years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that transformed the economic and social structure of the United States and paved the way for the post-war boom. It was called the GI Bill of Rights.
One of its many unintended byproducts was the way it revolutionized higher education.
Just 16 days after D-Day, as American troops began the torturous battle to retake Hitler's Europe, President Roosevelt said in his signing statement that the bill "gives emphatic notice to the men and women in our armed forces that the American people do not intend to let them down."
The inverse also turned out to be true. Those returning men and women did not let America down. Among the benefits the bill gave returning veterans was tuition support with living expenses. For the first time, the doors of academia opened to the average person. The ex-GIs flocked into universities, received an education they could not have otherwise obtained, and then used that knowledge to build the modern America still very much in evidence today.
The original GI Bill was so popular that in 1947, veterans made up about half of all college admissions!
At the University of Maryland, between June and September of 1946, enrollments at College Park nearly doubled from 6,000 to more than 11,000. By the end of the 1947-48 academic year they topped 15,000.
In fact, University of Maryland University College traces its roots to the state's commitment to educating what can be considered the nation's first non-traditional students.
The returning vets were older. They had vastly different life experiences than the typical undergraduate student living on a campus. Many had jobs and families. Many could not fit into the strictures of a traditional university. They needed opportunities to be part-time students, to commute to classes, and to learn during off-hours.
To meet their needs, the University of Maryland created something new: The College of Special and Continuation Studies, which eventually became UMUC.
Today, more than 10,000 of UMUC's 90,000 students are using GI Bill education benefits.
The latest incarnation of the GI Bill, which boosted educational funding available to veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, was signed into law in July 2008, and to date, well over a million veterans have taken advantage of this benefit. This is an investment that pays dividends in the countless stories of service men and women who return from battle and use their education to improve their lives.
One example is Christopher Izzo. Raised in New York City, Mr. Izzo did not have the means to go to college and decided to join the Army in 2000 specifically to get the GI Bill benefits.
Trained as a medic, he was wounded twice — once in Iraq and a second time in Afghanistan — while treating soldiers on the battlefield and in makeshift hospitals. With the expanded GI benefits provided after 9/11, he earned an undergraduate degree in social science, then a master's degree in health-care management.
Mr. Izzo is now completing an MBA as well as a certificate in health care informatics at UMUC, where he is learning the new health care electronic medical records system.
Working at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as he recovered from his wounds, he assisted the White House optometrist, visiting both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
Now he is at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, planning to use his education to become a hospital administrator. He says the GI bill "gives you whatever you need to succeed. Coming from where I came from, I wouldn't be able to be where I am now."
Our nation must continue its commitment to veterans like Christopher Izzo — listening to their needs and recognizing the value they bring as a result of their global experiences, their discipline and their maturity.
They deserve it. And they most certainly have earned it.
In higher education, much discussion centers on preparing students for a global economy. Yet few students — or faculty — have the life experiences and leadership training or know as much about global affairs and different cultures as do these veterans.
As the GI Bill turns 70, we are reminded that these benefits have become a vitally important tool that can lift our veterans up intellectually, financially, and psychologically.
And the success of our veterans can — and should — still lift our entire nation.
Javier Miyares is president of the University of Maryland University College. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.