Retired Air Force fighter jet pilot Billy Francis, who leads Florida State University’s Student Veterans Center with a can-do attitude and benevolent heart, has navigated a winding life journey, sometimes literally at Mach speed.
While his zigzag route has sent him and his family all over the world, Francis has brought a steadfast focus to his many missions and always delivered an invaluable gift: helping everyone along that path rise to new heights.
This Veterans Day, Francis is celebrating his seventh year as founding director of FSU’s Student Veterans Center, where his personal resolve to elevate others has translated into tangible results.
Francis has been a loyal, creative leader, working tenaciously to help veterans make the sometimes-difficult transition to college life. He makes sure they are welcomed into a supportive campus community where they can thrive.
“Our goal at the Student Veterans Center is to get to know student-veterans and initiate, cultivate and sustain relationships that create a sense of home, so they can develop a post-service sense of purpose and vision for their future,” Francis said. “We want to be a national beacon of veteran support and success. We want to empower veterans.”
The best way to empower student-veterans is to provide the resources that help them graduate and find rewarding careers or postgraduate opportunities, Francis said.
Florida State is succeeding on that goal. Student-veterans are posting an impressive graduation rate of 83 percent, according to the Office of Institutional Research.
“That’s a tribute to student-veterans as well as the whole campus community showing its support,” Francis said. “FSU has set up more than 60 liaisons across campus who help with the retention of our student-veterans. We have so many resources as part of the FSU family. I can get immediate assistance with spiritual, mental, physical, relational and academic demands.”
Those campuswide connections are powerful and unique, Francis said, because they help ensure there’s not a “subculture of veterans” separated from the other 99 percent of the student body. That’s a crucial factor for student-veterans, who often arrive on campus a little older and with dramatically different experiences, skills and accomplishments.
In the military, some of them were responsible for millions of dollars of equipment, or they led colleagues and close friends in war zones where bad decisions could cost lives.
Francis points to the actions of one FSU student-veteran who risked everything to help save the life of another service member.
“That’s a big deal, and someone might easily think at the age of 23, ‘I’m never going to have the chance to do something close to that again,’ so you could get discouraged,” Francis said. “We help them realize the biggest accomplishment of their lives is not behind them, and at the same time, we educate nonveteran students about the valuable contributions of our veterans.”
Francis praises Florida State’s veteran-friendly culture, saying the campus has adopted an all-inclusive mindset to empower student-veterans wherever possible.
The list of examples is long. Under the university’s organizational structure, Francis reports directly to President John Thrasher. FSU’s student body presidents have routinely traveled to the National Student Veterans of America annual conference — the only school in the nation to do so. The Student Government Association has created a special unit to focus on veterans’ initiatives.
That supportive spirit is embraced and actualized by members of the Interfraternity Council and National Pan-Hellenic Council, Francis said. A friendly competition of sorts has even developed among FSU’s colleges as they create programs specifically designed to boost veterans and their families.
“Individual colleges at Florida State want to take the necessary steps to become the most veteran-friendly in the nation,” he said.
Francis, who served 26 years in the U.S. military, has a lifelong record of confronting challenges and overcoming them.
A few examples: Francis made FSU’s football team as a walk-on in his freshman year. That same year he was burned so badly in an accident, he had to withdraw from his classes but still managed to graduate in three years.
He turned himself into a top-notch fighter pilot and became an instructor pilot with a seemingly impossible mission: train people who knew nothing about flying and turn them into some of the best pilots in the world in a year.
“It was unbelievable, very rigorous, and this was at the height of the Cold War in 1986,” Francis said.
Later, he was named Mission Support Group Commander at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, a puzzling choice at the time because pilots rarely led mission support services, such as security, communications, food supplies, roads and buildings.
“They were very skeptical when I came in there,” Francis recalled. “Here was a guy who was a pilot, and they wondered, ‘Who is he? What’s going on here? This is weird.’ But it turned out to be a great experience. I told them my job was to get them what they needed, and I encouraged them to do a great job every day.”
That may be Francis’ greatest gift and skill. He engages, encourages and lifts others up, so they can fly higher and fulfill dreams that seemed out of reach.
Now, this results-focused achiever takes on one of his most audacious goals yet — leading the development of a new “Veterans Legacy Complex” on campus. It is a vast vision, ambitious and demanding, that challenges his matchless mix of optimism, persistence and likeable humility.
He will need those qualities, and likely an extra measure of persuasiveness, to lead FSU’s effort to build the nation’s premier venue for veterans of the past, present and future. Even with his lifetime record of rising to every challenge, Francis knows this time someone must join hands with him and embrace the project.
“We need a lead donor,” he said. “We need somebody who gets excited about creating a one-of-a-kind facility in a veteran-friendly campus culture. The Veterans Legacy Complex would establish Florida State as the ‘Harvard’ of that sphere in higher education. That’s a big opportunity ahead.”
The complex is designed to house FSU’s Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, the Student Veterans Center and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) facility — veterans of the past, present and future. Currently, those units are located in different places on campus.
Francis believes constructing the Veterans Legacy Complex would create a shining national example of Florida State’s unwavering commitment to veterans.
“Florida State would be an example to other universities, encouraging them to make a long-term investment in veterans, who have a service-motivated ethos, and help them move forward to become tomorrow’s leaders.”