In October 2014, Chris Rolph was sitting in a North Carolina hotel room with time to kill before a flight home to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Feeling dejected after an unsuccessful road trip to look at colleges with his dad, he made a last-ditch effort to find a school by Googling what was nearby.

About an hour later, he was touring the campus of Queens University of Charlotte, a small, private university he’d never heard of. And after 20 minutes on campus, he knew he’d found the one.

“I went back to Germany and applied that week and was accepted,” said Rolph, now a senior at the college. “A happy accident turned into a really good experience.”

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That good experience just got better for Rolph, a tall, outgoing blond who spent five years in the Air Force and Reserves after high school. On Saturday, he was named the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year, the highest individual honor given by the nonprofit Student Veterans of America.

“I am totally overwhelmed,” he said, struggling to put his feelings into words after receiving the award. “I also feel a pretty big amount of responsibility to represent 1.1 million student vets, so right now I’m thinking about how to do that the best.”

For Rolph, the honor means further validation that he made the right choice — not just to attend Queens University, but to become an advocate for its military student population and help build an SVA chapter from the ground up.

“For a long time, I was so insecure,” he said. “Queens — we’re so small. We don’t have anything.”

Rolph is president of the SVA chapter QU4Troops, which he co-founded in 2016 with four other members, including his best friend from Ramstein, whom he recruited to the college. Before getting a grant from SVA and Home Depot to build a proper veterans center, the veterans’ space was the size of a closet, and Rolph’s office was a subsection of somebody else’s, he said. The chapter now has about 15 active members, who raise their own $2,000 budget by selling T-shirts and hosting lunches.

“I care about it way over the top,” he said, joking that he has the energy of a morning person around the clock. “People pick up on that, and you build a very organic culture. Even if that helps only one guy or gal, it’s really, really rewarding.”

He hopes that will also be a lesson for other chapters struggling to find members or get funding.

“I guess what I’ve learned is the impact you have on other people can’t really be quantified,” he said.

Chris Rolph, left, stands with Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon and a fellow student veteran at Queens University of Charlotte. (Provided by Chris Rolph)
Chris Rolph, left, stands with Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon and a fellow student veteran at Queens University of Charlotte. (Provided by Chris Rolph)

Rolph was selected from more than 120 nominees and nine other finalists for the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year award, given annually at the SVA national conference to recognize student veterans who are servant leaders on their campuses and their communities.

“Really it’s an acknowledgement of the work that you’ve done, and it’s an investment in that your journey is only getting started,” said Jared Lyon, SVA president and CEO. The winners, he said, are “without exaggeration, the people to watch.”

Emily Richardson, co-faculty advisor for QU4Troops, described Rolph as an “incredible leader.”

“Chris has brought the voice of veterans to the Queens University community, and to the Charlotte area,” she said in an email. “Without Chris at the helm of our student veteran association QU4Troops for the past 18 months, we would not have been as successful as we are today.”

But Rolph credits that success back to the university and the support he’s received from the administration and his fellow student veterans there, as well as from businesses, nonprofits and individuals in the larger Charlotte community who have invested in QU4Troops.

Rolph said he also wouldn’t be who he is without his girlfriend, Amanda, a high school crush with whom he later reconnected. The two now live together in Charlotte, and she has helped him grow up from the cocky teenager he once was, he said.

“Very little of it has to do with me,” he said. “Full credit needs to be on the people that I lean on every hour.”

Rolph is slated to graduate from Queens University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration this May. Though he’s not yet sure what his career path with be, he hopes to find a position where he can continue to lead and energize others.

But he’s not ready to say goodbye to the student veteran community just yet.

“I want to be an advocate,” he said. “We have tried to do our absolute best to represent student veterans and to change the narrative about veterans in higher education. I think I’m going to work my butt off to keep doing it and to do it more and to do it at a bigger scale and to keep it up.”