3rd-generation veteran to lead ASU Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement
Retired Col. Wanda A. Wright, former director of the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services and a 21-year veteran of the Arizona National Guard, has been named director of Arizona State University’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement.
She will start June 1 in the office, which is part of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.
The director position is focused on promoting dialogue, teaching and research to increase understanding, knowledge and relationships among military, civilian and academic cultures. In addition to her administrative duties, Wright will be one of the lead educators for the college’s growing number of academic programs in veteran and military studies, which include a certificate in veterans, society and service; an associate degree in military studies; and — expected to launch in fall 2023 — a bachelor’s degree in applied military and veterans studies.
“Wright has an impressive track record as a transformational leader, with extensive experience working with stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally to achieve positive outcomes for veterans and their families,” noted Joanna Grabski, dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “Along the way, she has built and sustained an incredible network of collaborators and contacts in state and national government, veteran service organizations and nonprofits across the U.S., and in media. She’s secured grant funding for important research. She’s also taught at the collegiate level. There’s already tremendous excitement to see how she’ll take the (office) as a national model for second-career success for veterans to new levels of impact."
In January, Wright completed eight years of service as director of the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services. Under her leadership, the department's veteran disability claim approval rates increased from 65% to more than 95% in five years. In that same period, the department increased federal funding from $26 million a month to more than $70 million a month to support veterans with disabilities.
During her tenure, Wright was elected to serve as president of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs from 2022 to 2023, working with other state directors and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on issues affecting veterans.
In 2017, she was appointed to serve on the VA’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, and she is still actively serving a third three-year term.
“The committee’s work supported the newly adopted, more inclusive mission statement for the VA that was announced last month,” Wright said. “It reflects the VA’s commitment to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population, but so many women don’t feel included in our nation’s veteran narrative.”
Wright is a Sun Devil alumna, having earned a master's degree in educational leadership in 2016. Wright also holds a master's degree in business administration from Webster University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Arizona.
A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Wright began her military career as deputy budget officer with the Tactical Air Command in South Carolina. Wright served with the Arizona National Guard in various positions between 2000 and 2011, finishing out her military service as the director of staff. She is the first African-American woman to attain the rank of colonel in the Arizona National Guard.
‘Transition is something I understand'
Wright joins the college at a time of exciting change, as the college — focused on applied-emphasis degrees and career-connected learning — is transitioning to an organizational structure centered around three new schools.
Change and transition are something Wright, a third-generation veteran, said she understands well.
“My life is a story of transition,” Wright said. “Growing up in a military family, we moved every two years to a new Army post until I graduated from high school. After graduating from the United States Air Force Academy and my commission as an officer, I relocated twice to military assignments at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 1985, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, in 1987. Three years later, I transitioned out of active duty into the Arizona National Guard.”
Wright changed positions, on average, every three years while in the Guard. After retiring from military service in 2011, she transitioned to education, teaching math and serving as vice principal at Montessori Academy in Paradise Valley for four years, until duty called once more when she was tapped by Arizona Gov. Douglas Ducey to lead the Department of Veterans' Services.
“As the College for Integrative Sciences and Arts and the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement move forward, the opportunities to create a new organizational structure and curriculum are limitless,” said Wright, who participated in and supported the early iteration of the office's current Treks for Vets program. “I want to be a part of this transition. To be part of growing the field of veteran studies. To be a national model for second-career success for veterans is an especially exciting opportunity.”
Outgoing office Director Manuel Avilés-Santiago, who also is the college's associate dean for academic programs and curricular innovation, is thrilled about Wright’s new position.
"Col. Wright's comprehensive understanding of the assets, needs, areas of opportunities and stories of Arizona's veterans will be critical to the success of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement and the impact it will have, not only at ASU and in the community but nationwide. We want to bridge the military-civilian gap through teaching, research and programming, and CISA found in Wanda Wright the ideal engineer to help us design and build that bridge,” he said.
Wright said it feels like she’s found just the right position at just the right time.
“I had been looking for a position in education where I could continue to serve veterans,” she said. “This position is the perfect fit for me as I continue my work with veterans, in an academic environment, utilizing my master’s in educational leadership degree from ASU. There are so many opportunities to continue to expand courses available, to ensure students understand the wide and deep extent to which they can impact the lives of veterans and their families, and gain an understanding of veteran and military history, structure, systems and policies,” she said. “I am so excited to work in such an innovative educational space with fantastic ASU staff and faculty.”