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If You Build It, Will They Come?

January 10, 2013

Roger L. Perkins directs the Veterans Support Center at the University of Utah. He’s had bedrooms that are bigger than his campus office, whose paper-thin walls make it easy for a sobbing student to be overheard next door.

Is the space sufficient? “Not in the least,” Perkins says.

But it speaks to Perkins’s larger struggle. In his plight to set up a hub for veterans at Utah (the support center opened in May 2011), Perkins dealt with shaky support on all sides: an administration that underestimated the investment, and student veterans who weren’t exactly champing at the bit to talk with him.

The experience is not unique to Perkins. As the influx of returning veterans has led to more scrutiny of retention rates and how they're served on campuses, colleges are moving to offer more support than just the veterans affairs' offices where students claim their Post-9/11 GI Bill federal tuition benefits (for which 2 million veterans are eligible).

But some officials at the helm of those efforts say they encounter a lack of willingness -- not just from administrators with tight schedules and purse strings, but from the students themselves. The same traits that sometimes make it hard for veterans to assimilate on campus – they’re older and more independent, experienced and no-nonsense than most traditional college students, and might have families – can make them reluctant to seek out support.

“It just frustrates me because we have nearly 1,000 veterans on campus, and I think they just don’t realize what we can do for them,” said Sandra Pannell, a veteran who worked in the Utah support center from fall 2011 until she graduated last month. (When the office was just getting off the ground, Perkins thought he had only about 300 veterans on campus.)

“How you build this organization is critical,” Perkins said. “To be quite honest, most universities think they know this already and can’t be taught, when in reality, they do not.”

Utah is, unlike some campuses, genuinely willing to invest in the project, Perkins said. But after the center opened, problems remained: administrators thought simply opening the office would be enough, he said, and overlooked policy tweaks that should accompany the project. (For instance, athletes and band members get excused from class for games and performances, but veterans called on for service -- say, after a big storm -- got no such courtesy.)

Patrick Young, coordinator of veterans' services at Towson University, has had the same struggle to generate interest, but he considers that a problem any campus organization has to deal with.

For Young, part of the issue is misconceptions – not among administrators, but among veterans, who can be turned off by the assumption that the office is there to supplement the traditional college experience. These centers aren't there to host group outings and campus events, as a campus club might do. The staff are there simply to do things like help with paperwork, chit chat, and just sit around while students use the computers or enjoy a quiet lunch.

“They’ve got other things going on – the last thing on their mind is putting more time into a student organization,” Young said. “I think every college administrator would like to see more people using the spaces…. Even though everybody who walks in here is like, ‘This is really great.’ ”

Young and the others have identified a few difference-makers: Having a veteran in charge of the office, a person who reaches out to build trust with students. Identifying as many veterans on campus as possible – even when it means taking to the streets and straight up asking students. Creating a strong brand for the office, and reinforcing that through orientation, e-mails, and events around campus.

Brian Hawthorne, a board member for the national Student Veterans of America who recently earned a graduate degree from George Washington University, said that in his experience with support centers, "if you build it, they do come." But it is crucial for colleges to meet and keep up with demand once they make that leap, he added, describing what he said is a familiar scenario:

“The school feels like they’ve invested, and they have, but now two years later the veteran population has doubled because they’ve made this very significant investment,” Hawthorne said. “Then the staff becomes totally overwhelmed and the space becomes inadequate at a faster rate than the school is able to respond.” (Utah and Towson only have one or two people working in their offices.)

Lia Coryell, a graduate program assistant at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Center for Military and Student Veterans, has observed a hesitation that she attributes to military culture.

“When your life depends on the other members of your team, you tend to be really choosy about your teammates,” Coryell said in an e-mail. “Even though college is not a life-or-death situation, the battle-buddy mindset is foremost in a soldier/student veteran’s mind.”

Coryell teamed up with the university’s Veterans Advisory Council, using its members as liaisons to the students in her center. For example, a career counselor spends several hours a week in the center, interacting with the veterans and developing a rapport.

“Veterans who would never have considered working with a career counselor are now comfortable enough to seek her out in her own office,” Coryell said. “That would not have happened if she had not taken the initiative to spend her own time, effort and resources in building those relationships.”

Lauren Williams, director of military and veteran services at Marywood University, isn’t a veteran, but her husband is. (Staff also say that using the word “military” instead of or in addition to “veteran” in applications and other paperwork and office names – as Marywood does – helps draw in students who don’t consider themselves veterans, either because they’re still serving or think they didn’t serve long enough to qualify.) Williams proposed the center to Marywood's president, Sister Anne Munley, who emphatically supported the cause. With help from a two-year grant, Williams got the office up and running in just just three months. It opened in April.

“Then, it was just a matter of me proving myself to [the veterans],” Williams said. “It was difficult for them to build that trust.”

She did so by contacting them via e-mail to explain her goals and role as their advocate, building relationships with the students’ families, and bringing in a social work intern to help with the intake process and connect students with disability, counseling and academic services as needed.

In past years, Marywood had “lots” of veterans withdraw from school. Last semester, nobody left.

“That in and of itself proves the need to have an office on campus specifically for those students,” Williams said. “It’s important to make sure that we kind of go above and beyond for them, only because they’ve gone above and beyond for us.”

 

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