The day Paul Austin ’65 and his wife, Linda, met Daniel Crosson ’17 was perfect for tailgating. The temperate autumn breeze complemented the warm October sunshine. Chicago maroon and burnt orange blended into a landscape of tents and banners around Lane Stadium.
At the Austins’ tailgate, Crosson thanked the donors who had created the Austin Excellence Fund for Student Veterans, of which he was the first scholarship recipient.
As the couple welcomed the Marine Corps veteran into their pregame gathering, they discovered a kindred connection.
“When I was in Vietnam, I was an Army reconnaissance platoon leader,” Paul Austin said. “It turned out Daniel had also been in a reconnaissance battalion when he was serving his tour in Afghanistan. Our bond was instant.”
Even though they had served in different branches of the military, Crosson found it surprising they were both in reconnaissance. And while he was training to be part of the Marines’ elite Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, he had learned about military maneuvers during the Vietnam War. During his training, Crosson had found it interesting to read case studies that influenced military operations for future generations, but it was that much more fascinating to shake hands with someone who had lived through the experience.
As the conversation continued, the two also discovered a shared love of history. Before being drafted, Paul Austin had earned a history degree from Virginia Tech. After graduating with a bachelor’s in political science in May 2017, Crosson is finishing a second degree in history while he applies for positions in federal agencies, such as the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency. The Austins’ generosity is allowing him to broaden his education before starting his civilian career.
“One problem many veterans have with the G.I. Bill is getting everything done in the allotted timespan,” said Crosson, who is originally from Woodbridge, Virginia. “It’s always a worry, and money becomes an issue. This scholarship is allowing me to extend my education without anxiety about such expenses as rent or health insurance. It’s a big weight off my shoulders.”
The Austins hoped their fund would have this effect. Established to help veterans enhance their college experience, it provides a smooth transition into their post-degree futures.
Already enthusiastic donors to Virginia Tech, the Austins realized their passion for helping veterans tied in with the university’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). The fund they created is a way for the Austins to help those who have given so much to the United States through their military service.
The idea for its creation began during Virginia Tech Military Appreciation Day in 2015. The couple had already been planning to increase their donations to the university.
“When we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do, Paul met this very nice veteran, and we learned that a great deal of money had to come out of his pockets for his education, even more than we would have expected,” said Linda Austin. “A lightbulb went off. We thought, this is what we can do. That’s how it all started.”
Now in its second year, the fund recently provided three more students with scholarships: Mallary Brown of Virginia Beach, a master’s degree candidate in the School of Education; Jon “Jay” Gonzalez of Riner, Virginia, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering; and David Thomas IV of Wise, Virginia, a sophomore pursuing a degree in political science.
“The scholarship will allow me to focus more on my studies and my child,” said Brown, who served in the Army National Guard for 13 years. “I’m a single mother, I work full time, and I carry a full graduate load. With this scholarship, I won’t have to take on additional jobs besides teaching to pay for my schooling. My G.I. Bill benefits ran out last year, so this helps alleviate the burden of paying for tuition and books.”
In addition to the scholarships, the Austin Excellence Fund provides networking opportunities for student veterans, such as one recently held in coordination with the Office of Career and Professional Development and the Office of Veterans Services. Although the number of attendees was double that expected, the event was intimate enough for veterans to ask questions about job interviews, ranging from appropriate attire to the legality of employer inquiries about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Along with special events, the fund will sponsor a veteran-friendly employer site visit day during the spring semester.
The Austins want more student veterans to take advantage of the fund’s opportunities. Although the preference is for College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences majors, anyone who served in the U.S. military is eligible to apply. The scholarship is based on academic merit; applicants should have a minimum GPA of 2.5. The application period runs from Jan. 8 until March 2, 2018.
Paul and Linda Austin also advocate philanthropy broadly. They note that whether it's through their fund or to support other passions, generosity can take many forms, including donations, endowments, estate planning, and matching funds from corporate employers. Paul Austin — a retired vice president of human resources and assistant to the chairman at the Norfolk Southern Corporation — was able to increase the impact of the couple’s donation through the Norfolk Southern Foundation’s Matching Gifts Program, and he urges those working in the corporate world to look into similar programs.
“If you have the financial ability, would you not help someone if you could?” he asks. “You don’t become a philanthropist just because you have the financial ability; you become a philanthropist because you have a willingness and a desire to help others achieve success.”
Written by Leslie King