Roberts brings vision, energy, and communications expertise to new role
Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Allen Roberts wants people to have a better understanding of the “amazing diversity” within the veteran community on the University of Iowa campus.

“For example, not all veterans have seen combat. In fact, most of us haven’t,” says Roberts, 37, who became the new Military and Veteran Education Specialist last spring.

The self-described “data hound” and former Air Force Airman and journalist can rattle off a string of facts about the estimated 518 UI student veterans on campus, a number that's likely to increase this fall by 70 to 90 students once official enrollment figures are tallied.

Those facts include things like 80 percent of veterans are male, 20 percent are female, about half of student veterans are married, and most of those have two or more children. A large percentage has never seen combat.

He adds the average age of a UI veteran is 27, and the average grade-point average is 3.1. The top three areas of study that draw veterans to the UI are business, engineering, and journalism and mass communication.

“There’s this misconception that all veterans are flag waving and patriotic or that they have shot someone or they have PTSD or that they are all pro-America and pro-democracy, and that’s just not true of all veterans,” Roberts says.

He quickly adds, however, that it is critical to provide support and services to those veterans who have seen combat, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or who have some other mental or physical disability.

"I'm a data hound. I love data. We're in the process of collecting more information so we can have a more holistic understanding of who our veterans are," he says.

Epicenter for veterans on campus

UI students, faculty, staff, and community members are invited to an open house Tuesday, Sept. 3 for the newly remodeled Military and Veteran Student Services office. Learn more by clicking here.

Roberts’ position is within the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment (CDE) in the Chief Diversity Office, a position that previously lived within the UI Office of the Registrar.

He says that at first he didn't understand how veterans represented diversity, especially since many are white males. But he says it now makes perfect sense.

"Military culture is a unique and very definitive culture here on campus," Roberts says, crediting Georgina Dodge and Nancy Humbles for their vision in understanding this need.

And the UI student veteran community is growing more diverse, so it's critical veterans have a one-stop shop on campus that connects them to everything from GI benefits and academic support to counseling, social activities, and career preparation.

“I’d like to think of this as the epicenter for veterans on our campus,” says Roberts, who has ambitious goals for veteran support and services on campus.

Those goals include launching a new Military Culture Education Program to help faculty and staff better understand veterans and serve as allies and supporters. Offered through My Training in Employee Self-Service (Course No. 679), this program is modeled after the Safe Zone Program, designed to provide a safe place for members of the LGBTQ community. The first class was Aug. 20 and the next two are Sept. 12 and Oct. 23.

"It's going to be fun, and we're going to bring up a lot of the stereotypes that are surrounding veterans," Roberts says. "We're also going to educate the faculty and staff on the vast differences between the services whether between the Army or the Marines or the Navy or the Air Force."

People who complete the training will receive a button that says, "I'm a veteran supporter."

Roberts' office also will launch a new program called Veteran Vitality, a veteran and military culture program that will lead up to a festive Veterans Day program Nov. 11 with a Hawaiian luau theme. Instead of thinking of this time as a memorial to veterans who have died, Roberts wants to infuse a sense of recognition and celebration, more closely mirroring the original purpose of Armistice Day.

He's also created a veteran honor roll, and every student veteran who maintains a 3.0 GPA or higher receives a certificate signed by Roberts. There were 176 students on the list this past spring.

Roberts is also developing a peer mentoring network, so, for example, if a sophomore engineering major who was in the Army has questions or concerns about studies Roberts’ office can help connect him or her with a senior engineering major who also served in the Army.

“We’ll develop this by branch of service, by gender, and by major,” Roberts says.

Roberts’ office is located in the newly remodeled Military and Veteran Student Services office in the UI Communication Center, which also houses two staff and eight student veteran workers with the Diversity Resources Team, which has allowed for some innovative collaborations.

"They were kind of the muse behind the Veteran and Military Culture Training since they develop and administer the Safe Zone training," Roberts says. "We just took a page from their book."

"My main mission is try to incorporate veterans into campus and community life and to help them cultivate that identity of being a Hawkeye, a veteran, and a leader on campus."
—Allen Roberts

The remodeled office includes new furniture, eight upgraded computers, a flat-screen TV, fresh paint, and new signage, designed to make the space more welcoming to student veterans and more professional and on par with other Big Ten schools.

"My main mission is try to incorporate veterans into campus and community life and to help them cultivate that identity of being a Hawkeye, a veteran, and a leader on campus," Roberts says.

This is perfect, Roberts says, because one of his many goals is to not only connect veterans to each other, but also encourage them to get involved and get to know other students who are not like them.

“I always stress to the students, while you’re here at college, I want you to identify with something other than being a veteran,” Roberts says. “Find something that you love, and learn something new. College is about unlocking your intellectual potential, not your income potential.”

He also wants to educate others on campus to have a better understanding of who veterans are, especially the fact that they bring significant leadership experience to campuses and communities.

"A lot of people across the country have hired people in jobs like mine because there's an ethos that veterans need help on campus," Robert says.

Roberts wants to flip that perception on its head. "I think that while there are some veterans who do need help, most of us can help the campus. We are an underutilized asset with our leadership potential and our proven leadership experience. "

Three questions for veterans

When working with others on campus, especially those in University Counseling Services, Roberts encourages counselors to ask student veterans three questions: "What did you do in the military?" "Where did you go?" and "Did you like the military?"

“Their answers to these three questions will tell you so much about what services and support they might need,” Roberts says.

Roberts can share his own experiences with these questions.

In his case, he credits the military for having a positive influence on his life at a time when he really needed some direction and focus.

“I joined the military out of southern California, Los Angeles,” says Roberts who joined the Air Force in 1995 at the age of 19 and served four years of active duty.

Roberts says he was at a point in his life when he was drifting, doing drugs, and running with a bad crowd. He was working at a warehouse driving a forklift after he graduated from Adolfo Camarillo High School in a suburban farming community.

“That’s when I kind of made the decision that this wasn’t what I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life,” Roberts says.

Lineage of military service

Roberts had a lot of family military connections. His dad was in the Navy, his uncle was in the Air Force, his grandfather was a B-26 pilot in World War II, and his grandmother served in the WAVES and was a founding member of the women’s auxiliary. His grandparents met and fell in love on the Rue de barrier under the Arc de Trump in Paris.

"I love to live vicariously through them," Roberts says. "It was interesting to see the life that they lived in the military and be able to compare it as an adult to my experience. There is a lineage of military service in my family."

Roberts was trained as an electronics warfare apprentice working on a radar receiving and jamming platform, earning a Top Secret security clearance in the process.

"The military was a phenomenal experience for me," Roberts says. "And it wasn't always positive, but in retrospect, it was positive overall."

Roberts did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and was then stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., for almost a year. This is where he met his now ex-wife.

Allen Roberts in Saudi Arabia
Allen Roberts at Prince Sultan Airbase, in Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia, in Feb. 1999 when he was deployed with the Air Force. Photo courtesy of Allen Roberts.

During his four years of service, Roberts was deployed to seven different countries or autonomous regions including the Azores, Japan, Germany, England, Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, and Italy.

Roberts says he never had to pick up a gun.

"I just worked on computers in pretty unfavorable environments in the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia where we got to live with cobras and camel spiders," says Roberts, who was a senior airman when he left the military.

Veterans as writers

Several pivotal experiences guided Roberts toward a journalism career. He first met a veteran sports journalist with the Tucson Citizen named Corky Simpson at a farmer's market who helped encourage his interest in writing.

Roberts began taking classes full-time at Pima Community College in Tucson the last year he was in the military. A professor in a 100-level English class put a note on one of his papers that said he had an engaging writing style and that he should consider becoming a writer.

"I had never thought of that, and when I told my mom I was going to study journalism, she nearly fell out the her chair because spelling and English had always been something they had to pull my teeth out to get me to do," Roberts says.

In 1999, at the age of 23, he left the Air Force and worked selling shoes at a JC Penney in south Florida where his wife's family lived so he could get residency and instate tuition. He continued his education at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., and eventually transferred to the University of Florida where he obtained his Bachelor of Science in journalism in 2003 with a minor in U.S. war history.

It was during his own college years that Roberts first got involved with a veteran's network.

"I was 23 and had been married for almost four years and so I had a lot of life experience that a lot of people my age didn't, but I also was lacking a lot of life experience that a lot of people my age had who had been in school for awhile," Roberts says, "so finding a cohort that you can fit into was very difficult."

Roberts has done everything from sell shoes to serve as a staff reporter at a Manhattan-based magazine, Inc., that covered privately held, fast-growing companies. He also worked as a journalist for the Los Angeles Business Journal, as a driver and personal concierge to the wealthy, and as a research associate at an investment firm.

After several different jobs and careers in Florida, New York, and California, Roberts most recently worked for three years as a veteran certification officer at Portland State University while also working toward a graduate degree in communications studies, both full-time commitments.

On a whim, Roberts saw the position advertised at the UI and decided to apply, even though he had never been in the state and wasn't sure what to think about Iowa's winters.

Part of the draw for Roberts to come to Iowa is the UI's rich literary heritage and world-famous writing programs in addition to the strong Hawkeye spirit.

He adds that Nile Kinnick's legacy as a scholar and the only Heisman Trophy winner to die during a training flight during WW II was another draw for him.

"A lot of veterans become writers. You see a lot of the stories—Black Hawk Down, Jarhead," Roberts says. "These people live extraordinary lives and they do extraordinary jobs while they're over in Iraq or Afghanistan or even if they're not participating in combat. The things that they see and the places they go and the things that they do are amazing."

Though Roberts is currently immersed in his new position, he still yearns to write and hopes to apply to the Writers' Workshop in the future to tell his own stories.

"Because of the writing community and literary legacy the University of Iowa has, and the graduate degree for writing, that was extremely appealing for me," Roberts says. "Completing an advanced degree is definitely something I have my eye on."

Roberts brings all of his life experiences to his new role at the UI.

"Veterans face some different challenges than the traditional students do," Roberts says. "I can finally put all of my life experiences to work here."

In addition to his professional development and scholarship, Roberts also has a baby daughter on the way. He adds that the forces that compelled him to join the military, become a journalist, and a veteran advocate are still at work today here at the UI.

"Once you get a small taste of that sense of adventure, you really never quite cleanse your palate of it. I expect that my stay here in Iowa City is going to be quite exciting."