Tom Cruise reaches out to shake the hand of a student veteran as they walk across campus together, while a service dog looks on.

A Volunteer to Lean On

If you really want to understand a person, the adage says, you must be willing to walk a mile in their shoes. That’s what US Air Force veteran Tom Cruise (’17, ’20) does every day at UT.

Tom Cruise—not that one—is standing at the front of a classroom lecturing.

“Your GI Bill doesn’t last forever,” he tells a group of US Army, Navy, and Air Force veterans in their first semester at UT.

“You’re on a limited time window to get your degrees finished,” he continues before clicking over to the next slide, where he goes through bullet points on social media presence and personal branding.

Cruise, a coordinator in UT’s Veterans Success Center, discusses resumes, too: “Don’t overuse your military experience. If you’re applying for a job on campus, they don’t care as much that you can take apart an airplane and put it back together.

“But some of you were supervisors in the military. That’s leadership and responsibility right there.”

Students chime in, translating military experience into civilian terms. “Focus on safety protocols,” one says. “You can talk about commitment and being a part of a team,” says another.

The course, Transition 201: Transitioning to Rocky Top, has been a regular part of the First-Year Programs curriculum at UT. But Cruise’s class is the first time the university has offered a section like this, intended exclusively for veterans and taught by a veteran himself.

Who better to teach it than someone who was in the same position many of his students are in now? Before he was offered a job at UT, Cruise had come to campus as a student in the fall of 2015 after serving six years in the US Air Force. He too faced what he calls the double whammy: transitioning to civilian and student life after years of following the highly structured routines of an active-duty service member.

“You have the mentality and work experience of an adult,” Cruise says. “But you’re sitting in an English class with 18-year-olds, and there’s this feeling of isolation. You feel alone, and you’re not really sure you made the right decision to go back to school.

“As a student veteran, you may not ever really feel like you fit in.”

At the time he enrolled to study journalism at UT, Cruise was 28 years old and married. He was the only veteran in most of his classes, which made it hard to find a community of people who knew what he was experiencing in the transition. The physical space on the first floor of Hodges Library where the Veterans Success Center is now located wouldn’t open until November 2017, three weeks before his graduation date.

But there was good news for Cruise. With the new space came the opportunity to join the center’s team, which then consisted of Director Jayetta Rogers and Coordinator Vickie Clark, to build the kind of environment on campus Cruise personally knew would benefit student veterans. Over the years, the team has worked with the university to develop a specialized orientation for student veterans, training for faculty and staff on how to work with and support them, and veteran-led classes to provide students with at least one academic space during the first weeks of their transition to college life where they would be surrounded by others who know what they’ve been through.

“I looked back, and I remembered how I felt, and that’s what drove me,” says Cruise, who has led many of the programming efforts. “It’s what drives me every day.”

Helping Students Succeed

The university consistently ranks among the top 50 public universities for veterans and has earned designations as a Military Spouse Friendly School and Military Friendly Gold School.

Those accolades are in large part because of the work of Cruise and his colleagues at the Veterans Success Center. Beyond certifying GI Bill benefits, which cover tuition and fees, the center organizes programs and initiatives throughout the year for more than 1,200 student veterans and military-connected students pursuing academic degrees on campus.

Through Green Zone trainings, Cruise has prepared nearly 400 faculty and staff members across campus to work with and support student veterans. He has helped organize campus-wide veteran appreciation dinners with the Air Force and Army ROTC, the Division of Diversity and Engagement, Haslam College of Business, and the Division of Student Success. This year, for the first time, Cruise led a specialized orientation session in Hodges Library called Vet Camp, which more than 50 incoming students attended. He started a podcast, Dog Tag Dialogue, that discusses topics important to student veterans, and he sits with a pop-up table promoting the Veterans Success Center at spots all over campus.

If they don’t come to you, go to them—that’s Cruise’s philosophy.

“I want to make sure that our student veterans know who I am, where I come from, and that I’m always here for them,” Cruise says. “I don’t care if it’s academic or not—I’m here to be a service to the students.”

Josh Crum, a Charleston, Tennessee, native who served six years in the Marine Corps, struggled with the transition to college, just as Cruise had during his time as a student. He enrolled at UT in the spring of 2017 to study kinesiology after working in aircraft avionics and border patrol during his time in the military.

“When you’re in the service, everything is taken care of for you,” Crum says. “You always have a schedule. You know when you’re going to get paid. You have people around you that you can talk to about what you’re going through. Here I had no one.”

During his time in the Marines, Crum suffered knee injuries, shattered shins, and broken ribs, and he was still recovering. It wasn’t long after starting school that he felt overwhelmed, with no one to turn to who could empathize or help.

“I got very depressed, and when I did I ate my feelings,” Crum says. “I’d wake up at one in the morning not able to sleep, and I’d run to Taco Bell. I gained a lot of weight. To hide it, I was wearing hoodies. And one day Tom came up to me like, ‘You good, man?’ And I was like, ‘Not really.’ So we had a discussion. He brought Vickie in and we talked, and he helped me through that.”

The Veterans Success Center became the place on campus where Crum made most of his lasting memories from college. And Cruise became the person Crum reached out to whenever he needed anything.

“He’ll do the best and everything in his power to help you succeed,” Crum says. “He faced the same stuff as a lot of us. He’ll be like, ‘Man, you’re just struggling with the transition. This is part of it. You may not see it. But everyone around you will. This is what you should do. This is what’ll help you out.’”

Crum graduated in the spring of 2020 and is now attending nursing school at South College, with the hope of working in the ICU or postsurgical unit of a VA hospital.

Growing into Leadership

Military service wasn’t new to Cruise growing up in West Virginia. One of his grandfathers had served in the Army. His other grandpa and several of his cousins were in the Navy. His sister was in the Coast Guard. But after graduating from high school, Cruise had no plans to join them. He tried college, enrolling at two different universities. The entire time he was searching for some kind of purpose or direction for his life.

“That’s when I decided to enlist,” Cruise says.

From 2008 to 2014, Cruise was a crew chief at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida working on F-16 fighter jets. After his enlistment, he and his wife, Ashley, moved back to Beckley, the small city in southern West Virginia he had previously called home.

Not able to find work and going quickly through his military savings, the couple was visiting family outside Knoxville when Cruise decided they should stay. He could use his GI Bill benefits to attend UT. She could find work as a behavioral therapist.

At first, it felt weird being the oldest student in his classes. He had a daughter at home, his wife was pregnant, and he was figuring out how to be a husband, a dad, and a good student while taking steps toward his future career.

“I was a little nervous,” says Cruise. “But I stepped out of my shell.”

During his time as a student, Cruise was a news editor for the Daily Beacon student newspaper and worked as a science writing intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He graduated with honors.

“Of course, it’s not that easy for others to do what I did,” he says. It’s something Cruise goes back to again and again. He’ll tell you veterans are the most diverse group of people he’s ever been around. None of their stories are identical. Some are first-generation students. Some have had six- to 10-year gaps between high school and college. Others may have mental or physical health challenges from their time of service. Some were deployed and saw combat overseas, and others spent their entire enlistments stateside.

While working for the Veterans Success Center, Cruise continued studying. In 2020, he earned a master’s degree in educational psychology. It helped him understand better how to serve the full range of UT’s veteran population.

“It’s embarrassing to say it, but I was a very selfish and self-centered individual before the military,” Cruise says. “The military has changed so much of that. It has a lot to do with why I want to do the things I want to do here. It’s not about me anymore. It’s really not.”

When Megan Byrd, a Marine Corps veteran and sophomore pre-med and biological sciences major, told Cruise she was struggling in math, he told her he had failed his first math class at UT. “You’re not failing right now,” he said. “So it’s not that bad. Don’t worry. We’ll find you solutions.”

He set up tutoring sessions in the Veterans Success Center for Byrd, and he does the same thing on request for any student veteran who needs it.

“He’ll reach out to people directly and get them to come to you in a space where you’re comfortable,” Byrd says.

It wasn’t easy at first for Byrd to admit she needed help. She associated asking for help with weakness. “In the Marine Corps, especially, if you’re a woman and you admit weakness, it’s like you’re admitting that you’re frail,” Byrd says. “But if the university is offering these services, and Tom is trying his best to contact people to help veterans and dependents, I’m going to use it,” Byrd says.

In her classes, when professors asked her to introduce herself, Byrd didn’t tell anyone she was a veteran. She was just Megan. She’d grown up in Cleveland, Tennessee, worked as an air traffic controller, and is a first-generation student back in college after five years.

Cruise had done the same thing, as have so many student veterans he’s met through the years. He understands those who may not want to go to the Veterans Success Center because they figure they’re civilians now. They’re out of the service. Being a soldier is no longer their everyday reality.

“There’s these premade images of who a veteran is, and what people think we do,” Byrd says. “I don’t want people to associate that with me before they know me as a student or as a person.”

But Byrd has been encouraged by Cruise to embrace the spirit that sets Volunteers apart and give back through her unique skills and experiences. She serves as president of Vol Fighters, a student organization for veterans, and in September she launched 4FirstGen, another student organization to support first-generation college students. When Cruise hosts Green Zone Trainings, Byrd sits on a student veteran panel to answer questions and explain situations other members of the campus community may be unfamiliar with.

“Tom does a really great job of trying to bridge the divide and the gap between civilians and veterans at UT,” Byrd says.

More Impact Ahead

On the whiteboard in his office at the Veterans Success Center, Cruise keeps his monthly calendar. It’s covered in black marker. The agenda is full. In the corner there are all the projects the team has yet to officially start.

Currently all veterans who graduate from UT receive a special medallion and red, white, and blue cord to wear with their gown. But Cruise would like to expand that into a ceremony for graduating veterans. He hopes to also build a veteran alumni network to provide relationships for students when they graduate, develop more orientation sessions and an academic program building on his Transition 201 class, and bring academic coaches and advisors trained to work with veterans into the center.

“There’s only three of us here right now, and while we do our best, when it comes down to physical manpower we’re limited,” Cruise says. “What we’re offering just has to keep growing every semester. It can’t get stagnant or stale.”

If the growth stopped today, that wouldn’t be OK with Cruise. As long as there’s more work he can do, he is unsatisfied.

“I feel like I have a responsibility in my role and my position—one, as a veteran, but also as a staff member of the university,” Cruise says. “I have a responsibility to give voice for these veterans that might not be able to, or might not want to be heard, or might not have the opportunity to be heard.”

That’s the challenge Cruise relishes every morning he walks into his office in Hodges Library, looks up at his whiteboard, and prepares for the day ahead.

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