Chip Lauterbach, Contributing Writer
The Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni spoke to a group of VCU military veterans at Cabell Library Sept. 21.
The event — organized by Military Student Services Director Stephen Ross — focused on what veterans go through when transitioning from their time in the armed forces back to civilian life.
“This was a really wonderful collaboration,” Ross said of the event, which was a collective effort between MSS, VCU Military Veterans Alumni Council and the Office of Government Relations. “Without the hard work of all those involved we wouldn’t be enjoying this wonderful afternoon with Secretary Qarni.”
Qarni, a native of Pakistan, talked about his experiences candidly, spanning from his 1996 enlistment in the Marine Corps after finishing high school to coming home from the invasion of Iraq after March 2003.
“Coming home from Iraq I had to focus,” Qarni said. “My wife had just given birth to our first child and I knew I was going to move on from the Marine Corps. It was then that I decided that I was going go into education.”
After leaving the military, Qarni said that because of his time in the service, he was able to focus on his aspirations in a more mature manner than an average 26-year-old man.
“I made a deal with my parents, because my father was very proud of me and gung-ho about me joining the military — he said it was what an immigrant was supposed to do,” Qarni said. “But my mother was absolutely against the idea, so I agreed to join the reserves and go to college.”
After pursuing higher education, Qarni became a teacher in civics, mathematics and U.S. history, teaching classes at Beville Middle School in Prince William County. Qarni was named Dale City Teacher of the Year in 2016. Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed Qarni as the 19th Secretary of Education of the state of Virginia, assuming office on Jan. 13, 2018.
“When I first came home, I was withdrawn and sometimes quick to anger,” Qarni said. “I do know that without the prospect and the eventual structure of being an educator, I would have struggled in those first few months of returning to life and society.”
Emphasizing the need for veterans to reach out to those who came before them, Qarni said the governor tasked him with developing programs geared toward helping veterans in transition at Virginia colleges and universities.
“We owe it to our brothers and sisters who have sacrificed so much to secure our liberty here in America and abroad,” Qarni said. “We need to let them know that we have their backs.”
Ryan Tompkins, a U.S. Army veteran at the event who will attend VCU next semester, said he was happy to see the Secretary of Education speaking to the university’s veteran community.
“I think it shows that Governor Northam and his administration are very understanding of the challenges faced by the Virginia veteran community,” Tompkins said. “And how supportive the Governor and his administration are of veterans finding a new path through higher education.”