From left to right: Michael Scelia, Shawn Houser, Beth Gray
Ringling College has a deep commitment to veterans.

There’s no better way to put it—Ringling College of Art and Design loves veterans. President Larry Thompson explains that they “bring significant life experiences to the classroom that shape the way they approach creativity. Those vital experiences add depth, texture, perspective, and color to their incredible work.”

In 1947, Ringling College was the first college in Florida to be certified for the GI Bill. That law offers numerous benefits for veterans including money for tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational/technical schools. Today, the school still participates in the GI Bill as well as the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, which is a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill that specifically helps students attend private schools and graduate programs that cost more than the previous state tuition cap. Participating schools—like Ringling College—must offer a veterans-only scholarship which the Veterans Affairs will then match up the full cost of tuition and fees. The Post-9/11 GI Bill also allows veterans to pass on their unused educational benefits to their children, too. Small wonder that Ringling College had 21 veterans and 44 dependents of veterans enrolled for the fall 2016 semester!

Started by Ringling student Nahman Y L’hrar (Illustration, ’18), the Veteran’s Portrait Project invites U.S. Veterans to sit for a portrait done by Ringling students or faculty members. Each artist chooses their medium, and the resulting portraits comprise an annual exhibition in the Christ-Janer Gallery on campus.

Their commitment to teamwork and excellence helps keep the bar high for the entire academic community. It’s no surprise that the names of veteran students are often found in leadership roles on campus and among the members of contest-winning projects here such as the award-winning documentary “Veterans of Color” or the Ringling College ART Network’s Telly award-winning segment for WEDU about that film.

About the experience of making “Veterans of Color,” Director/Producer and Ringling College Film faculty member Mark Parry says it was “incredibly rewarding since we were documenting vital history from black veterans who served our country during a time when our country wasn’t treating African Americans well. It was an honor to film the incredible stories they told, and it made me proud to be able to include Ringling students as the crew. Just listening to these incredible patriots speak was eye-opening for everyone.” Learn more at

One of those Ringling College veteran students is Michael Scelia (Illustration, ’17), who served as a Forward Observer in the U.S. Army. Scelia claims that his military background prepared him to be a successful student by instilling the values of reliability, consistency, and punctuality. “These values are important at school because we regularly have to meet deadlines, produce consistently good work, and be available and able to manage our time. Also, we try to look out for those around us, citing the camaraderie we relied upon in service.”

With so many veterans now on campus, it made sense that a Veterans’ Club was launched in fall 2014, and many of the veterans participate in these monthly get-togethers. Houser points out that being a veteran, “there’s a different mentality to things, a different bond. You walk in, get torn down then built back up—that’s the way the military goes. All the vets here have had that happen to them regardless of their branch.” Who else could understand that experience better than other veterans? A future goal for the group is to get a dedicated on-campus lounge space available where they can work between classes, which makes sense given that many of them have a substantial commute. The school is looking to create veteran-specific opportunities, too, to support this growing demographic.Another veteran student, Beth Gray (Illustration, ’17), served as an AME (Aviation Structural Mechanic-Safety Equipment) in the Navy where she worked on F/A-18 C/D Hornet attack jets in Virginia Beach, VA. “Working in a demanding environment like the military has prepared me for any challenge that life may throw my way,” she says. “I have the mindset that there is no excuse not to give 110%. If you try and fail, get back up and try again.” Gray’s stick-to-it attitude paid off when she was commissioned to paint a portrait of ABC’s “Good Morning America” commentator Robin Roberts as part of the Library Association’s Town Hall Series at the Van Wezel in March 2016.

The list of academic successes earned by these veterans and the dependents of veterans is impressive. Here are just a few of their recent highlights.

In 2014, veterans Elena Haas (Interior Design, ’15), Chris Campbell (Advertising Design, ’17), and Daniel Jeffers (Fine Arts, ’18), won Best of Ringling awards, and Maurice Mullinex (Fine Arts, ’15) received a runner up. Typically, Best of Ringling awards are won by upperclassmen, but Jeffers won his honor as a freshman. Elena Haas was also a Trustee Scholar!

Three veteran students—Chris Campbell (Advertising Design, ’17), Jose Lazarte (Advertising Design, ’17) and Ben Bryant (Graphic Design, ’16)—were part of the team that placed third in the Finals in June 2016 in the National Student Advertising Competition.

Two dependents of veterans were recent Trustee Scholars—Robin Thompson (Illustration, ’17) in 2016 and Kevin Whitmeyer (Game Art, ’16) in 2015. Thompson was also commissioned to paint a portrait for the Library Association Town Hall Series at the Van Wezel this past spring.

Shawn Houser (Illustration, ’17) served for six years as a Pararescueman in the Air Force before working for the North Port Police Department and then the fire department before coming to Ringling College. “Any time there was personnel or pieces of equipment that needed recovery, they sent us in,” he explains about being one of the most highly trained and versatile recovery specialists in the world. That means that they had to be prepared to succeed in every type of hostile environment, including deep water, desert terrain, and extreme cold. It also meant spending countless hours on aircraft, including taking hundreds of parachute jumps. “We had an 85% washout rate,” he admits. “But after going through all of that training? The workload at school doesn’t seem so hard. Plus you’re getting to do something you enjoy that previously you only got to do in your free time.” Houser laughs when he explains that one big difference with being a veteran student versus a regular civilian student is how on the first day of class he’s often mistaken for being an instructor. “Overall, though, it’s awesome being here.” His skill with sculpting—which he didn’t realize he had until he got here—has earned him a recurring summer internship at Hasbro Toys in Rhode Island.

President Larry Thompson articulates just why Ringling College loves veteran students by saying, “Our veterans sacrifice their lives and their livelihoods to secure our futures and that of our children and children’s children. They shape our lives in ways we don’t always know, and they shape our communities. In turn, it is incumbent that we help achieve their dreams and pave the way for their future success.” And Ringling College is pleased to make that commitment again and again to so many deserving young men, women, and their families.

By Ryan G. Van Cleave
Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books as well as a writing coach and freelance writer. He also runs the new Creative Writing major at Ringling College of Art and Design.