All Dan Standage needed was a broom closet. “Basically I just said, give me a broom closet and as long as we have a space, people can say I know there’s a space for veterans…. Just by virtue of having that, it started something,” says Standage, a rehabilitation major and student coordinator of the VETS (Veterans Education and Transition Services) office at the University of Arizona.
Standage offered to staff the office – “I was the guy who said if you give me an office I’ll just sit here and if a guy comes in here I’ll help them out instead of hanging out in the library and playing with a computer” -- to combat his own isolation.
“Initially, for me, it was, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. I didn’t know anybody. I’m 35 years old, so definitely not the traditional guy. I have a visual impairment and so it was hard just getting around the campus and interacting with people, or being able to leave the campus for that matter. I was pretty much stuck here until my wife picked me up.
“I was looking for just a space to be able to go to, to get some couch donated, throw it in here, and be able to lie down.”
This was in August and, says Standage, the approach has worked out. Before, he says, “I was here for a year, and I could count on one hand the vets who were here. I never ran into them. And after I initiated the office here, we see like 50 a week.” He hangs out in the office from around 8 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, each day, and has four student veterans on staff (on VA work study) who comb through scholarship opportunities and help student veterans with practical matters, like getting their immunization forms filled out. Many stop by just to hang out.
“There’s not too many times that we can’t crack a joke around here.”
Student veterans have become more visible on many campuses, including Arizona's, and colleges, preparing for an expected increase in veteran enrollment once the new Post-9/11 GI Bill takes effect this August, have taken notice. Many colleges have been stepping up their support for and outreach to veterans, by creating veterans' offices, streamlining their admission and registration processes, expanding their counseling center capacity, establishing mentoring programs, and training faculty and staff.
"I am very pleased. It seems like people have really started to understand that the veteran population is going to be increasing soon, and veterans are a little different than the average college student, the average 18-year-old, coming to school," says John Powers, executive director of Student Veterans of America. The number of SVA chapters has grown by about 15 chapters a month since January, and there are now 177 chapters in 40 different states, Powers says. “Everyone’s very, very motivated. Some of them are social clubs, but some of them are really changing policies,” says Powers.
“There are some universities out there that are fully prepared, they’re on board. Every college is different. You can have great admissions policies, but you may not have a veterans’ resource center on campus. The counseling center may be lacking,” says Powers. (One other way colleges are demonstrating their veteran-friendliness is by joining the Yellow Ribbon Program, a federal matching program in which they cover any gap between the base GI Bill base benefit and actual charges. Colleges have until June 15 to sign up but, Powers noted, so far, the published list of participating colleges seems "a little light. I thought more schools were going to join. I guess they still have about two weeks [to do so]...." Of course, many colleges typically sign up for such things at the last minute.
Specialized programs have also emerged, including initiatives to support veterans with hearing loss at the Rochester Institute of Technology (which houses the National Technical Institute for the Deaf), and to serve injured veterans (Mount Wachusett Community College, in Massachusetts, has leased land, at no charge, for the construction of a privately-funded rehabilitation and training center on campus).
“I really stress that colleges survey their students,” says Mary Koskan, director of One-Stop Student Services at the University of Minnesota, which has instituted a number of changes to policies and procedures to better serve student veterans, such as, for instance, waiving late fees for veterans, so as not to penalize them for delays in processing of their educational benefits. The university created a One Stop Veterans Office and developed a veterans' orientation program supplemental to the regular student orientation.
Minnesota formed a Veterans Advisory Committee and surveys student veterans annually. A veterans appreciation event, for instance, was started in 2007 as a result of survey feedback. Held around Nov. 11 (the federal Veterans Day) each year, “We have T-shirts, we have our university marching band, we have an F-16 fly-over, we have chili and food. All students are invited and staff and faculty," says Koskan.
Youngstown State University, meanwhile, is one of a number of colleges that recently created an Office of Veterans Affairs – intended to recruit more veterans to campus, and better serve them once they enroll. “We are new so everything’s a new idea. But one thing we did just get approved by the university, we are waiving all application and orientation fees for veterans and current military personnel. So that’s $105 in savings right off the bat,” says Jim Olive, the office’s coordinator.
Olive assembled a nine-member advisory council with two representatives each from the faculty, staff, student and community, and one from the Board of Trustees. He's also been looking to identify other allies. In a survey, he learned that about 3 percent of full-time employees had former or current military service. “I asked them if they’d be part of what I’m calling the Vet Net. All I’m going to do is tap into them and their expertise. They could be working in buildings or grounds or they could be the chair of an academic department,” says Olive.
He’s also designing a veterans-friendly sticker, modeled after the “Safe Space” sticker denoting support for gay and lesbian students. “Just to let the veterans know all through the campus that these are places that are veteran-friendly.... Although veterans don’t necessarily need safe zones, they do need to know that they’re welcome here. It’s a vet-friendly environment and it’s all through campus.”
One other area of focus has been the health needs of veterans. In a study of more than 8,000 student veterans in Minnesota released last week, researchers found that veterans' health issues were similar to those of the general student population, with two exceptions: Female veterans reported higher rates of sexual assault and male and female veterans both reported higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than did their peers.
Empire State College created a training module that explains post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, “trying to give some tips to instructors… just to be able to be aware and to be sensitive,” says Linda Frank, the director of the university’s newly expanded Office of Veteran and Military Education.
Lindsay Armitage, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology at Norwich University, in Vermont, helped design a reflective seminar for combat veterans. “One of my interests in being part of the class,” says Armitage, “was to put a face on the counseling center for the students. We hadn’t seen many veterans coming in. We were trying to do outreach to them and we weren’t having a lot of success with it…. I think the VA tries to do a very good job when people come home of screening people for PTSD because they want to get them services… [but] one of the results is they get really tired of being looked at as someone with PTSD.”
Student veterans in the class also offered the Board of Trustees a list of recommendations as to how Norwich, a private military college that is home to a large cadet corps, could become more veteran-friendly. The recommendations include easing transfer of credit, creating a new veterans’ orientation, and hiring a veterans’ advocate or liaison (the university's application to fund such a position with an American Council on Education/Wal-Mart grant was denied, but they're looking for other funding). “We have not as an institution been geared for veterans and we’re going to be,” pledged Richard W. Schneider, Norwich's president.
But what about those veterans who just want to blend in, who don’t want anything special? Are they out there, too?
Sure they are, says Ann Ingala, the veterans' coordinator at Colorado State University. “When I give trainings to people, I say here are some characteristics that a lot of student veterans have in common and yet it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.”
“As we look at what programs and services are we going to offer, let’s get as big a menu as possible,” Ingala says. A listserv for veterans, for instance, might be good for those who only want to be peripherally connected to other veterans on campus, while a one-on-one mentoring program might be good for an incoming student craving extra support.
“Some veterans say I don’t want any recognition, I don’t want anything special done, I just want to blend in, I just want to be a student," Ingala says. "And there are others who say, yeah, I want some kind of recognition, I want an office, so if I have a question there’s someone dedicated to helping me with that."