A duty to help

BGSU alumnus, vet establishes scholarship fund to help military students

William-Downing

By Anne-Margaret Swary

When student-veterans and military students arrive on campus, they often face unique challenges. The transition to civilian life can be difficult, especially for those who bear the mental and physical wounds of combat. And for those still on active duty, they must balance the responsibilities of being a college student with the duties and obligations that their military service requires. 

When their educational benefits run out, they also have the added burden or figuring out how to continue their studies. But thanks to the generosity of a fellow veteran and Falcon, this special class of Bowling Green State University students will have much-needed scholarship support to help them earn their degrees.

william downing 2The Office of Nontraditional and Military Student Services recently received a $1 million gift from William Downing Sr. ’57 and his late wife, Joan ’57, to provide scholarships for student-veterans at BGSU, enabling them to continue their education when their GI Bill funding runs out.

To honor their substantial gift, the existing veterans center in the College Park Office Building was recently renamed the William and Joan Downing Military and Veteran Center.

A veteran of the Korean War who attended BGSU on the GI Bill, Downing particularly understands the challenges that military students face. Even six decades later, he remembers how hard it was to hold down numerous jobs while attending school to make ends meet.

“I wanted to support the students who have served or will serve our country so that they could have the help they need because they are so deserving,” Downing said. “I was very fortunate to attend BGSU and end up with a good career, and this is a way to give something back.”

The Downings both placed a high value on the importance of higher education. The Falcon Flames both graduated with education degrees and pursued initial careers as teachers.

“The military and BGSU were both pivotal institutions in shaping our lives,” Downing said. “We want part of our legacy to be about helping young men and women who are present-day products of these same admirable institutions.”

Their transformational gift has the potential to touch many lives. Today, the University has more than 600 military affiliated students from all branches of the service, said Dr. Barbara Henry, assistant vice president of Nontraditional and Military Student Services at BGSU. About 43 percent are veterans, and 57 percent are serving in the Ohio National Guard, Reserves and/or are on active duty.

While many of them can be found on campus, some employ distance learning, attending BGSU while serving in locations around the world. The Office of Nontraditional and Military Student Services provides support to them all.

“For many military and veteran students, it takes time to find the right major, or maybe they deployed once or more while pursuing their education and have exhausted their military education benefits,” Henry said. “The Downing family’s generosity provides the opportunity for BGSU to now offer scholarships for military students who find themselves in this situation, and provide a life-changing bridge to help fund the completion of their degrees.”

Although the GI bill provides substantial educational benefits for service members, it does have its limitations, said David Rice, assistant director of Nontraditional and Military Student Services. For many service members, GI Bill funding is capped at 36 months of enrollment, and depending on the date of discharge, benefits can expire 10 to 15 years from the last date of service. This impacts many vets who decide to attend college later in life due to family obligations, career change or other personal circumstances.

“In addition, more and more students are taking more than four years to graduate,” Rice said. “It’s not uncommon for students who have recently returned from service to take a more gradual transition into life as a full-time student. But this means they aren’t able to complete their degrees within 36 academic months.”

Students who take classes in the summer or who have to withdraw mid-semester if they are called up for active duty also are impacted by reduced benefits as they hit the 36-month cap before their degree is finished.

“That’s where this funding really comes in handy for our military students,” Rice said. 

One of the first BGSU students to benefit from the Downing scholarship fund is Keylin Freeman, an electronics and computer engineering technology major and specialist in the U.S. Army.

In addition to currently serving in the National Guard, Freeman has been very active on campus as a tour guide, a member of the marching band and through his fraternity.

“I never thought that I would need help, but with military training weeks falling mid-semester and then back-to back call-ups for hurricane relief happened, I was delayed in my path to earning my degree and exhausted my education benefits,” Freeman said. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish, but I was determined. And now, thanks to Mr. Downing’s generosity, I have the opportunity to complete my degree this year and excel in life. It means so much.”

In addition to their shared experiences as BGSU students and veterans, Freeman and Downing also bonded over the fact that Freeman’s grandfather was a Korean War vet. 

“Both are exemplary examples of men that I strive to live like every day,” Freeman said.

“I am certain he will go far, and I wish him the best of luck,” Downing said of Freeman after having the chance to spend time with him during a visit to campus in August. “I hope that all the students helped by these scholarships take full advantage of the opportunities to complete their degrees, to help their families and to help prepare for future careers and so that they might be able to one day give back themselves if an opportunity arises for them.”

Downing also is pleased that his gift will help BGSU build on its already strong reputation as a university that is military-friendly.

Through the William and Joan Downing Military and Veteran Center, the University plans to offer transition seminars, peer tutoring and career counseling, as well as a first semester book program for new military students and a new laptop loan program for continuing students to support their academic success and degree completion.

“BGSU has been consistently ranked as ‘Best for Vets’ in the nation and No. 1 in Ohio by Military Times,” Henry said. “With the financial support provided by the Downing family, we will be able to expand our support of military and veteran students throughout their academic careers at BGSU for years to come.”