Dave Keefe, The Hero Behind the Heroes at Columbia University

December 06, 2021

Dave Keefe is the Senior Assistant Dean of Student Veteran Initiatives at Columbia University School of General Studies. 


Dave Keefe

Dave centralizes resources, advises student veteran organizations, and develops programs and policies for the undergraduate student veteran population at Columbia University.

Dave served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 - 2009 as a LAR and Riverine Scout, with a tour to Iraq in 2006, and began working with veterans in 2011 to connect veterans and society through storytelling and art making. His background is in fine arts, humanities, narrative medicine and community building through connective practice, with a Master of Fine Arts (’09) and a Master of Science in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University School of Professional Studies (’20).

Initially it was for my own well being. I did not have a great transition out of the service into society and I immediately started my graduate studies 3 months after coming home from Iraq. It was very difficult for my family, my friends, and me both mentally and emotionally. I realized that I needed to connect with other veterans to be able to tell my own stories, find a sense of belonging and purpose, and help others hear that my narrative was different from other narratives out there.

Getting involved in the veteran art movements, I experienced the profound impact of community and connective creative practices, and I decided very early on that I wanted to dedicate myself to both helping connect veterans to community and thus helping society build a capacity for the ambiguity of the veteran narrative.

Early on, I knew that this connection was never primarily about the sole transformation of the individual veteran, rather it was also about working to change society’s understanding of who veterans are, where they came from, and who controls the veteran narrative. I found it necessary to facilitate the opportunity of a platform for veterans and society to connect and make a difference by co-creating through art making. 

Through my work in the non-profit art world, I have been working with veterans, as an artist and providing community building and connective art practices for 10 years and counting. Simultaneously, I started off in higher education as an adjunct professor and have been teaching for the last decade. My work in the classroom, with students and veterans naturally brought me to student affairs and student support services for all college students, and primarily student veterans at General Studies for the last 6 years.

It is a challenge to provide a balance between veteran-only resources and universal resources. There is a lot of effort to create veteran-only programs or support services when many of these support services already exist. Promoting a healthy balance of the two can sustain veterans learning to operate in a “civilian” society, and not having to rely on solely other veterans.

Another challenge is connecting staff, faculty and other students to an awareness of the wide and diverse veteran community. Many personnel across campus have a one-sided biased perspective on military service and veteran-life. It is complicated, so encouraging veterans to tell their stories in many different methods, both in the classroom and via extra-curricular environments is key to a building campus capacity for veteran narrative competency.

One area where the "veteran-only” approach creates positive outcome is in the initial transitional steps from military culture to campus culture, i.e. the onboarding of student veterans. Here is where peer-to-peer mentoring and guidance is crucial for in-coming veterans to feel as if they belong.

Representation of under-represented communities, not only with veterans but across all student populations, is integral for many transitioning students to see a piece of themselves in others, giving potential assistance for their lifelong journey of perseverance through change. My position within the administration as a veteran (along with other student veteran leaders) gives representation for our community, and a sense of comfort for veterans in that vulnerable journey of change. It is an initial peer connection for that incoming student veteran that leads to a capacity of being able to connect to others that may not be veteran or that may identify very differently than the incoming student veteran.

On the flip side, my experience in the military service gives me a position on campus from where I can train and relay the nuanced complexities of this transition, plus the incredible potential that veterans can bring to campus and society, to those military affiliated support services across campus (e.g. advising, career services, community conduct, student and academic affairs, public safety, etc.), thus making the transition supportive, accepting, and easier for student veterans.

Not so great. At the time of my first graduate degree, there was little to no support for student veteran transition. It was also at a time (2007) when student veteran support wasn’t a major priority at many institutions. I was going through a lot of issues and felt I had nowhere to turn when I needed support as a student veteran. In fact, at one point I was seen as a danger by upper administration because I was told by one official at the time there was a real concern about veterans returning to campus from combat. They knew I was in combat, and made it a point to ask me if I was a danger to society. It was isolating, to say the least. It was by a happenstance referral from a friend (after I graduated) that I got connected to the non-profit world of veteran art and veteran service organizations that changed my life forever.

The transition from service to veteran life can be very hard, to start. If there is no formal transitional support, then the added stresses of school can be extremely overwhelming, and detrimental to physical and mental wellness. There needs to be a concerted effort among many partners to provide transitional support in all dimensions of well being for service members coming out of the military.

Higher Educational Institutions with their incredible capacity and ability to put forth great resources and positive change are spearhead elements to provide this kind of complex support, but they cannot be the only ones. It is a massive undertaking to prepare service members for the transition into society, just as it is to prepare them for the military. Higher Education is both a worthwhile step to head into that transition, but the alliances of support must be aligned from all areas. With that said, many student veterans persevere, graduate, and move on with the goals in their lives.

This is a testament to the many challenges already overcome by higher equation, and the myriad of resources available for student veterans. The challenges here are to make sure they are sustainable, and that student veterans continue to move on into the world knowing themselves as thinkers, do-ers and change makers; that they understand their unique definition of success; they embrace and participate within community; and that they can find a balance of resources for their own well-being and lifelong journey of learning. 

There isn’t one typical interaction, because the variety of veteran is a microcosm of American Society. Veterans can be driven, leaders, and community builders, but they can also feel like an imposter, suffer from lack of transitional support, and face moral injury. Veterans can have incredible experiences leading up to and within the service, or veterans can have traumatic reasons for joining and compounded traumatic experiences within the service. And, veterans can be any mix of these.

As an advisor, counselor, mentor, professor, support service, ally, etc., working with veterans is about having the emotional intelligence to courageously listen to the story being told right in front of you. In this connection, the student veteran will either signal or tell you outright how they need support. It is wide and complex, but one interaction that I experience quite frequently is that most veterans are still in a military service-culture mindset - mission-first, suck it up, lack of trust in civilians, fortress mentality, etc.

This interaction, of course, is more prevalent in freshly transitioning veterans rather than seasoned veterans, but it is true that many veterans don’t process their experiences until 10 years after getting out, or even later. Many student veterans will say that they do not wish to be labeled as a veteran, and they just want to focus on academics and move on with their lives. This is true, and so as an advisor or support service, your knowledge of the current student support service inventory is crucial.

Many student veterans choose not to use veteran services. However, many student veterans still need the formal transitional support out of military mindset to move through school onto the success they seek, otherwise it is very possible that the missed opportunity to process the transition out of the service could hit them a few years later. It can take a while for student veterans to learn how to accept, understand and operate in civilian society, and that can be a major burden on them, in addition to their academics, and the same can be for seasoned veterans.

Working with student veterans that cannot transition. For whatever reason it isn’t in their capacity to be able to transition out of the military mindset, or they are suffering from serious mental health challenges that prohibit them from continuing with school. Even more difficult than that is seeing the students that suffer similarly, but still want to suck it up and push through.

There is a pervasive military culture of not asking for help that carries over to veteran-life, and how that can be stigmatized as weakness. This is detrimental to any veteran, whether as a student or not. They can become isolated, substance reliant, resort to violence, and can find themselves in distressing and dangers situations. Watching students (sometimes helplessly) go through these difficult moments can be harrowing and also heartbreaking. Developing the infrastructure for support resources, from narrative capacity building to universal emergency protocols to psychological referrals and so much more is crucial to make sure the support is there, when it is needed most.

This is a constant moving target, with student experiential demographics changing, best practices updating, and resources always in developmental flux. It can also be a challenge to manage all of this, especially if there are limited resources, personnel, political leverage and abilities on campus. 

Student veterans should have robust initial transitional support in equal partnership with other entities such as the DOD, VA, SVA, local and regional governmental support, and a stable of streamlined VSO’s. There are many resources being developed and implemented, but they are duplicated efforts and wasted resources. Student veterans should have certain transitional support in place before stepping foot on campus, so that the transition into academia can be just that, a transition into academia. School is rigorous and can be overwhelming, and every effort should be made to develop the proper program to help service members be civilians, first, before students.

Much of this work can be done on campus, but it must be in partnership with the correct alliance that is focused on the complex elements and phases of transition, integration and change from one culture to another. 

My advice is embrace process. A journey is about having an idea of where you're heading, but every experience along the way can either take you on the most meandering path to get there, or even change the destination completely. Embracing the process of listening and learning to what is around you will help you make decisions with the information that is right in front of you, rather than thinking too much about the future or the past. Process helps you be present, in the moment, connecting with the people and things in your immediate surroundings.

These connections can ground you in a reality that emphasizes the need for community and participation, and what will help you make those informative decisions that lead to your own definition of success and well-being. You can get into school thinking you will be in one industry, therefore one major, but along the way decide to take advantage of an opportunity that eventually changes your major, and pursuing a different area the same industry, or a different purpose altogether. There is a process to school, and pursuing what feeds your belonging and purpose will drive you to feeling satisfied and successful in the long run. To do this, you have to rely on community, connection and constant participation.

College campus is the perfect space to get connected, pursue passion, and embrace process.