U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs meets with Penn student and staff veterans

At the invitation of Secretary Denis McDonough, they convened on campus for a candid conversation about VA benefits and programming.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs smiles for a photo with students and staff from Penn, at table with Penn logo in front
Secretary Denis McDonough inside Penn’s Student Service Center.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough visited campus on Wednesday afternoon, connecting with a group of Penn student and staff veterans for a private discussion. Sitting at a roundtable in the Franklin Building’s Student Service Center, they had an hourlong conversation about what’s working—and what could be better—when it comes to benefits and programs for those who have served in the military.

“Everyone had questions they wanted to ask, and the Secretary took them with ease. He’s very knowledgeable,” said Brenda Snow, an Army veteran and soon-to-be nurse anesthetist, completing her doctoral studies at Penn’s School of Nursing this May. Snow explained that, because she’s utilized the VA’s health care, home loan, and higher education benefits, the experience meeting McDonough was very meaningful. “He really cares,” Snow said.

Secretary chats with student veteran
Secretary shakes hand with Penn student
There are more than 400 veteran and military-affiliated students using VA benefits at Penn. Several participated in the roundtable with Secretary McDonough, and, afterward, had the chance to talk directly with him.

When asked why it was important to connect with members of the University community, McDonough promptly opened his notebook, pointing to a figure—406—representing veteran and military-affiliated students using VA benefits at Penn. “We want to find out from the people we work for, the veterans, how their experience is going and how we, as VA, can be more responsive to them and how we can make sure our programming is helping them succeed here at Penn,” McDonough said.

McDonough added later: “We like to say that we don’t expect veterans to change their lives to fit into our programs. We need to change our programs to fit into their lives. Coming right here to see them at school is one way to do that.”

Secretary chats with Interim President Jameson
Interim President J. Larry Jameson greets Secretary McDonough.

Special guests at the roundtable also included staff from the Penn-affiliated Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic, Veterans Upward Bound, Student Registration and Financial Services, and Warrior Canine Connection, as well as the VA Philadelphia Regional Office.

McDonough, who, among his many roles, formerly served in the Obama Administration as the White House Chief of Staff from February 2013 to January 2017, stuck around after the event, chatting one-on-one with students and even collecting contact information from a few. He also briefly met with Interim President J. Larry Jameson.

“The thing we talked about that’s really exciting is our partnership in health care,” McDonough said of his chat with Jameson, who until December was the dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System. McDonough noted the strength, and the continued opportunity, of the longstanding partnership between Penn and the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, including the training of medical residents and research initiatives, as well as two recent MOUs with the Philadelphia VA and Coatesville VA Medical Center focused on infrastructure investments.

Secretary listens at roundtable with students and staff
The roundtable discussion lasted about an hour, with topics mostly touching on VA benefits and programming.

Earlier in the day, McDonough attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 2024 CReATE MOTION project at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, located on the edge of Penn’s campus. He also visited one of the VA’s partner national cemeteries in Philadelphia.

Snow, with a rare break from her final week of clinical, took time after the roundtable to network with fellow student veterans and catch up with Associate Director of Veteran and Military Engagement Lynn Manuel, who Snow said she’s known since her earliest days as a Penn student. Snow, who was commissioned the same day she earned her bachelor’s degree from Bloomsburg University in 2014 and served as a nurse in the Army for six years, mostly in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said she joined the military “to be something bigger than myself.”

“That’s exactly what it was,” Snow said.

A reminder to all veterans: April 20 is the final day to update direct deposit information for VA disability compensation, pension, or education benefit payments.