The University of Oregon has a long tradition of educating veterans who are returning to school as well as students who go on to serve in the military after graduation. But until recently, veteran alumni did not have a dedicated group to serve their distinctive needs. Thanks to the efforts of Aaron H. Larsen, MBA '19, that situation changed last spring, when the UO Alumni Association announced the official launch of the UO Veteran Alumni Network (UOVAN).
For Larsen, a central goal of UOVAN will be to connect alumni veterans to current UO students who have also served, with the goal of providing support and mentorship during their time at the university and helping them make the transition to civilian life after school.
This is a journey that Larsen knows well from his own personal experience. A pilot with 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, Larsen was working as an aviation safety manager at Columbia Helicopters when he decided to earn his degree at the Oregon Executive MBA, the University of Oregon's Portland-based part-time MBA program for experienced professionals.
Because Larsen had previously pursued most of his higher education through opportunities in the military, he was unsure what it would be like to learn in an environment that mingled civilians and veterans. Due to injuries sustained in combat during his service in Afghanistan, Larsen battled trauma-related psychological distress.
“Part of my going back to school was vocational rehabilitation. I had a lot of fear and anxiety around doing a traditional school program and being around people again," said Larsen.
Despite this initial apprehension, Larsen relished his time in the program—both in and out of the classroom.
“I found myself enjoying the social interaction and the diversity of thought and experience. The agreeing to disagree and the idea that we don't all have to be the same. It fed my soul," said Larsen, who is also currently a board member of the Oregon Executive MBA Alumni Chapter.
Along with providing a welcoming community, Larsen's executive MBA experience paved the way for a career change. In 2020, he took on a senior manager role with Amazon's cargo flight program Amazon Air. He recently transitioned to a new position, reporting to the company's vice president of safety and leading employee health and safety committees for all of Amazon's businesses and business units.
The idea for UOVAN came from Larsen's research into the university's support organizations for veterans. Identifying ways the university could expand its services for this population, Larsen created a plan with eight distinct goals.
“I thought, if I was the president of the University of Oregon, what message would I want to send to veterans future, past, and present," said Larsen.
Starting with the alumni chapter, Larsen's plan moves step-by-step to an ambitious vision of the University of Oregon serving as what he describes as a “beacon of light" for the state's veteran community.
As he worked on his plans for UOVAN, Larsen drew inspiration from seeing classmate Ericka Warren play a pivotal role in the development of the UO Alumni Association's recently launched Black Alumni Network.
Soon after his graduation in 2019, Larsen presented his idea to the UO Alumni Association (UOAA) and received its support along with that of Maria Kalnbach, coordinator of nontraditional and veteran student engagement and success at the university's Eugene-based Student Veterans Center.
Larsen teamed with another veteran—Scott Salazar, who earned his undergraduate degree from the Lundquist College in 2014 and had brought a similar idea to the UOAA. Working with Kalnbach, the two spent the long COVID-19 winter of early 2021 developing the required bylaws and growing awareness about the upcoming chapter. With the new chapter up and running as of spring 2021, the team's next task is to continue growing its board.
Larsen is quick to note that all are welcome to get involved: It is not necessary to be a veteran in order to engage with the chapter or even to become a member.
The new chapter represents an essential step toward Larsen's ultimate vision of improving the university's standing as a military-friendly institution. On a day-to-day level, Larsen believes the UO Veteran Alumni Network will provide a new level of support for veterans pursuing their educational goals at the University of Oregon.
“Going back to school was a great experience for me and it continues to benefit me. I want everyone else to experience it just like I did—to have that same joy," said Larsen.
—Kit Alderdice, Lundquist College Communications