GVSU student vets participate in national conference, Mantella recognized as champion for veterans in higher ed

Cameron Zbikowski, president of Laker Vets, participates in a panel discussion during the 13th annual Student Veterans of America National Conference.
Cameron Zbikowski, president of Laker Vets, participates in a panel discussion during the 13th annual Student Veterans of America National Conference.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

GVSU student veterans took the national stage as they represented the university at the 13th annual Student Veterans of America National Conference held virtually February 19 and 20.

The conference was attended by more than 5,000 people, including Cindy McCain and a surprise appearance by first lady Jill Biden. Biden told participants how their military service leads to important education opportunities.

Student veteran Cameron Zbikowski, president of Laker Vets, was one of the top 10 finalists for Student Veteran of the Year from more than 1,500 chapters in all 50 states and four countries.

Sarah Anderson, vice president of Laker Vets, was selected as a nominee for Student Veteran of the Year.

During the conference, Zbikowski participated in a panel discussion, “How to Advocate for Your Chapter and Yourself" with other student leaders from across the country. Anderson participated as a panelist to discuss virtual and hybrid engagement.

 Sarah Anderson, vice president of Laker Vets and a Student Veteran of the Year nominee, participated as a panelist to discuss virtual and hybrid engagement.
Sarah Anderson, vice president of Laker Vets and a Student Veteran of the Year nominee.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

During the conference, President Philomena V. Mantella was presented with the prestigious 2020 William Pearson Tolley Champion for Veterans in Higher Education award.

The award was given to a single university president, chosen from more than 1,500 universities with SVA chapters.

Mantella was honored for "her tireless work on behalf of student veterans and military-affiliated students, including a first-of-its-kind commitment to guarantee admission to Michigan high school graduates who choose to put their education on hold to first serve their country called the GVSU Veteran Promise."

In her acceptance speech, Mantella said it was “a very special honor” to be recognized by the Student Veterans Association.

“This is an incredible organization with an admirable and noble vision, empowering student veterans to lead and live their best lives,” she said.

Mantella said it is her hope that other institutions of higher education emulate programs like the GVSU Veteran Promise, which guarantees admission for enlisted 2021 Michigan high school graduates. 

“It enriches our campuses to have these dedicated, disciplined students who bring a variety of experiences to their fellow students,” she said. “It is our absolute privilege to provide space, programming and support for those who put service before self.” 

Mantella thanked Zbikowski and other student veteran leaders who have worked hard to move Grand Valley forward on behalf of the 400 student veterans on campus.

Cameron Zbikowski, president of Laker Vets.
Cameron Zbikowski, left, president of Laker Vets, leads a Veterans Day hike on the Allendale Campus.
Image Credit: Sarah Anderson

Zbikowski, a senior with a double major in international business and human resources management, said he and other leaders have worked to make GVSU's student veterans organization more inclusive.

“We are expanding the scope of Laker Vets to serve not only veterans but active and reserve military and their dependents, as well as students who just want to support the organization,” he said. 

Zbikowski said it has been rewarding to create a closer connection to university leadership to establish stronger support for student veterans.

Read more about GVSU programs to support student veterans:

GVSU Veteran Promise 

Student Veterans Network

TRIO Veterans Upward Bound program 

Peer Advisors for Veteran Education 

Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab