Two hundred forty-six dollars a month seemed like a lot of money to Chris Jones in 1974. That was the amount of the veterans’ stipend he received when he enrolled in college after finishing a six-year stint in the U.S. Army. But just as important as the amount was the fact that the college, San Jose State, gave him a three-month advance on the stipend to cover his living expenses while he started classes.
“I remembered that,” Jones said. “And it made me realize that if I could, I should help other veterans in the same way those folks helped me.”
Twenty-five years later, now in the middle of a successful career, Jones returned to school, earning a master’s degree in 1999 from George Mason University’s school of public policy (now the Schar School of Policy and Government). In 2001 he founded ERPi, which provides consulting services to federal clients in the military and health sectors. As a service-disabled veteran himself, Jones put an emphasis on hiring other veterans and assisting their transition to the private sector.
As Fairfax-based ERPi’s business grew, Jones realized he was ready to do more. In 2012 he established the ERPi Patriot Scholarship fund at Mason, dedicated to helping fellow veterans, especially service-disabled, and their families. While most veterans are eligible for educational benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, gaps in funding still present challenges, especially for those who juggle education with obligations to work and family. The Patriot Scholarship offers $2,500 per semester for educational expenses. Several recipients have also accepted paid internships at ERPi as part of the package.
The program started with two students its first year, but kept growing. Initially, only Schar School students, undergraduate and graduate, were eligible. This year, Jones expanded the scholarship offer to nursing and other health students at the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS). For the spring of 2018, more than 20 students at the two schools will receive support.
Alejandro Mendoza, an undergraduate majoring in Government and International Politics, is one of the students Jones is helping. Born in Bolivia, he came to the U.S. at the age of 17 with his mother and sister to reunite with his father. Mendoza enlisted in the Marines, where he has served for 12 years. After graduation in December, he plans to attend graduate school, and aspires to work at the State Department or other federal agency, where an overseas posting would take advantage of his military experience and language skills. Mendoza will be the first college graduate in his family.
Sherri Taylor, who served eight years as an Army nurse, is now a fourth-year student at CHHS pursuing the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. She works at a plastic surgery center in Fairfax that assists breast cancer survivors, and is an advocate for the Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation. Taylor and her husband, an active duty soldier, have three young children. “The biggest reward,” Taylor says, “is growing professionally in a field that I am passionate about and being a role model for my children.”
Marjorie Thomas MPA ’17 is a Patriot Scholarship success story. After graduating last May, she parlayed the internship Jones offered into full-time employment as a project consultant at ERPi. Her husband, Henry Thomas, a wounded warrior who received the Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan, is pursuing his own master’s degree in social work at CHHS. The couple have four children, the youngest of whom is just age 4.
Inspired by these and other students he has met, Jones keeps expanding his support. Now he has another ambitious idea. He is challenging today’s crop of scholarship recipients to “pay it forward,” just as he has, by helping future veterans at Mason. The need is great: one out of every ten students at George Mason University—about 3,500 in all—is a veteran, a current military service member, or the dependent of one.
“I hope we will have more and more graduates and alumni, and that they will come together to form a Patriot Scholarship alumni chapter, dedicating itself to supporting the veterans who follow them at George Mason University,” Jones said.
“That would make me very proud.”