An Extraordinary Gift Honors NC State’s Veteran and Military-Affiliated Students
NC State’s service program for military-affiliated and veteran students has been named the Jeffrey Wright Military and Veteran Services.
The naming gift comes from alumnus and NC State University Foundation Board member Jeff Wright, along with his wife, Kelly Breslin Wright, and continues the family’s longtime support of veterans and military-affiliated students.
“The generosity of Jeff and Kelly Wright is a game changer for Military and Veteran Services and our military-affiliated students. Their extraordinary commitment to this population will allow us to provide services and programs that will help our veterans and military dependents thrive at NC State,” said Lisa Zapata, senior associate vice chancellor for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, which houses the program.
Jeff Wright graduated from NC State in 1991 with a B.A. in political science. He was a midshipman in the Naval ROTC Wolfpack Battalion and a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Upon commissioning, he served as a naval officer for five years before beginning a career as an investment banker. Since retiring, he splits his time between Bellevue, Washington, and North Carolina, which has afforded him the opportunity to become more engaged with NC State.
“My involvement with military and veteran issues has been lifelong,” he said. “I come from a military family, grew up on a Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, and became a naval officer myself. Veterans issues, not only at NC State but nationally, are something I take seriously and am extremely passionate about.”
In 2015, the Wrights established a scholarship at the Poole College of Management to support military dependents. They followed this with an endowment benefitting Military and Veteran Services in 2018, offering to match additional gifts from fellow alumni and friends.
As they saw the impact of that gift — which has included staff expansion and the creation of a professional development fund — the Wrights were inspired to name the program.
“We were able to accomplish some growth and some programmatic endeavors. Then we thought, what would it take to make this a bigger platform? We felt we could strengthen the program at NC State and expand our involvement,” Wright said.
A System of Support
With just under 850 students self-identifying as veterans or current service members and more than 1,400 additional students identifying as the spouse or child of a veteran, the Jeffrey Wright Military and Veteran Services plays a meaningful role for a significant portion of the campus population — one with specific needs.
“The average age of our veteran students is 27,” said Nick Drake, director of the program. Many are also first-generation college students. “This is an older demographic with some unique challenges and unique strengths, and it’s extremely important that we ensure the university has support structures in place.”
Drake explained that for some veterans, the transition to a higher-education setting can be difficult.
“NC State runs 180 degrees to a military environment — the military gives you a framework of when and where to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. Here, you’re on campus and you’re trying to find what office is the most appropriate for your question, and that’s where we come in,” he said.
Marc Mathews, a Ph.D. student in fiber and polymer science at Wilson College of Textiles, received that kind of support as he transitioned from serving in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps to civilian life.
“Military and Veteran Services helps to bridge the gap between these two very different worlds and sets us up to be successful at NC State,” he said. “They understand where we have come from and help greatly to ease the transition, connecting us with other veterans and veterans resources.”
Dependents of veterans also face their own set of challenges. Though they usually enter as undergraduates at the traditional age, their paths to NC State could include attending multiple high schools. “They have a unique perspective and needs as they try to find their place as well,” Drake said.
That was the case for Mikaela McCarson, a junior majoring in biological science and a military dependent of Army veterans.
“Military and Veteran Services has been a huge part of my college experience,” she said. “I don’t have a singular place to visit and my parents no longer live in the state I graduated high school from, so the community I have here is the most important one that I am a part of. Having a space and people to talk to about GI Bill problems, career choices and life in general has made the transition from ‘military dependent moving every two years’ to full-time college student so much easier.”
Much of Military and Veteran Services’ work is focused on this transition, as well as events to foster community for veterans, military dependents and their families.
Jacqueline Shorter, a Marine Corps veteran pursuing a master’s degree in English literature, has found a welcoming environment at these events.
“It has put me in contact with other student veterans and alumni. It’s very much appreciated, since transitioning out of the military is often challenging and lonely,” she said.
The Wrights’ ongoing support has ensured these opportunities continue to grow — which enhances NC State’s military-friendly reputation.
Jeff Wright hopes this inspires more veteran students, including those outside of North Carolina, to consider NC State. “You’re not on your own here at NC State,” he said.
“Getting through college isn’t easy, but NC State really does provide a safety net through Military and Veteran Services. You won’t fall through the cracks. It’s a large university, but it’s a small, tight-knit community who support one another.”
An Extraordinary Trajectory
Military and Veteran Services was created in November 2016, coinciding with the public launch of the Think and Do the Extraordinary Campaign. Its offices are located in Witherspoon Student Center.
“With alignment of this with the Campaign, it’s allowed us to be really intentional about establishing needed programs and looking ahead to what potential need there might be for private support,” Drake said.
He describes the program’s growth since the Wrights’ 2018 endowment as “exponential,” and the goal now is to continue.
“It’s going to be a big deal for us,” Drake said of the naming gift. He hopes to expand his staff and would like to establish a satellite office on Centennial Campus, as well as increase advising to make more connections with current and potential students.
Wright is also looking ahead when it comes to his family’s commitment. In addition to naming Military and Veteran Services, he is establishing a scholarship to benefit students in NROTC. While the majority do receive support from the NROTC Scholarship Program — like Wright did as a student — there are others who enroll without one and work to be awarded a two- or three-year scholarship.
“Many Naval ROTC students come from a middle-class background, not affluent families. In modern higher ed, even in-state tuition can be a substantial expense,” Wright said.
Conversations with Lisa Zapata and Captain Andrew Hertel, commanding officer for the North Carolina Piedmont Consortium NROTC, have helped Wright take a dual approach to his support.
“There are needs right now in the veterans community for servicemen and women who have completed their obligation, and we’re also looking ahead to the next set of students on campus who will be future officers,” he said.
His goal is to see the continued growth of military-affiliated and veteran students on campus, as well more recognition, support and engagement.
Reaching out to potential students well in advance of their time to apply is one way Drake works to achieve that growth. He has developed partnerships with community colleges and military installations to help those who are still serving find the best pathway to NC State.
Alex Doles, a first-year student in the Jenkins MBA program who served in the U.S. Air Force, spoke with Military and Veteran Services before she was accepted to NC State to learn more about what they offer. She quickly became a student ambassador, connecting fellow veterans at the Poole College of Management with Military and Veteran Services.
“Philanthropy really helps us to create an inclusive culture and support system. I can honestly say that we’re very grateful,” Doles said.
That feeling runs both ways.
“It’s been a stroke of fortune in my life that I have the time and capacity to be involved in something that means so much to me,” Wright said.
Turning Thought Into Action
As a veteran himself, Drake is well aware of the importance of the Wrights’ generosity.
“I want to thank Jeff and Kelly from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This gift impacts veterans in a meaningful way. I’m proud to be the director here and to be given the opportunity to be a good steward of this gift and make sure we’re taking care of our military-affiliated students.”
For Doles, the gift carries a message that is just as critical as the resources it will provide.
“With veterans, action is so important,” she explained. She sees the Wrights’ gift as an extension of saying, ‘Thank you for your service’ — an acknowledgment of the challenges she and her fellow veterans have faced and sacrifices they have made.
“Knowing that NC State is doing things to integrate us into the university culture, and that we have donors like Jeff Wright who are willing to support us means a lot,” she said. “This is not only saying ‘thank you for your service.’ It’s showing it.”
This post was originally published in Giving News.