Campus turns out to support student veterans

Members of the UO campus community turned out at a recent event to learn about the needs and concerns of student veterans and their families, and how to support them.

Speakers discussed the issues veterans face when they transition from active military duty to campus life and the readjustment they must move through.

Breakout sessions in the one-day symposium included topics such as facing trauma and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), family life and how to transition from the military to academia, and into a career.

Gretchen Jewett, director of UO Nontraditional and Veterans Education and Support, said student veterans face unique circumstances that require special support programs.

“Our student veterans face some of the same challenges as non-traditional students in that they are often older than their classmates and have much different life experiences so it is challenging to relate, and they are often balancing family, service and work responsibilities with their academics,” Jewett said.

Many of the veterans have been out of school for some time, so they not only have to transition back into student life, but also from military to civilian life.

“It is also difficult for some student veterans to ask for help,” Jewett said.

In addition to balancing all of their responsibilities, some veterans need to feel a sense of safety on campus and in classes, and find faculty and staff who are supportive of veterans.

To help student veterans find that support, the UO has a Veteran Friendly Listeners Program, which is an identified network of faculty and staff across campus who have “open doors and open ears for our student veterans,” Jewett said.

The UO also has an active Veterans and Family Student Association, a peer mentorship program called Dog Tags to Ducks and is a partner institution with the Pat Tillman Foundation – which provides scholarships and professional networking opportunities to student vets. There are also planned events around Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day.

UO Veterans and Family Student Association Co-Director Jonathan C. Brunton, 36, served in the Navy and is now a senior in his second year at the UO, working toward his bachelor's degree in social science with a concentration in business and economics.

Brunton transferred 78 credits from Lane Community College, where he attended from 1999-2001, and is glad he can finish his degree in just two years because he has a family “that is waiting for me to go back to work full-time with a very good job.”

Brunton is helping to form a new program called "University of Oregon Student Veterans to Success," which will set up a student veteran with a mentor who is a veteran-friendly college graduate. The mentor will continue to meet with the student for at least a year after graduation to ensure the transition from college to career is smooth.

Another program in the works, “Textbooks to Student Veterans,” will allow student veterans to donate their used textbooks to the Veterans and Student Association, which will then loan them to other veterans at no cost.

Brunton is glad to be helping the UO increase its support of student veterans and hopes to see more programming and support in the future, as the number of student veterans across country is increasing.

“We have the highest number of veterans now in college since right after World War II,” he says.

Currently, the UO has approximately 350 veterans who have either self-identified or can be tracked through their use of the GI Bill. But Jewett believes the number of student veterans is much higher because some veterans’ GI Bill benefits have been used up or expired and not all self-identify as veterans.

The majority are in their 20s or 30s but there are UO student vets of all ages. “Some have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, during peace time, or in the first Gulf War,” says Jewett.

The increasing number of veterans on campuses across country has garnered national attention.

The surge in student veterans plus spiking tuition rates led to the introduction in Congress last month of the “GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013.” The bipartisan bill, if passed, will require schools eligible for GI Bill education benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates, even if they are not residents of the states where the schools are located.

Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki also announced a major collaboration last month between Student Veterans of America, the National Student Clearinghouse and the VA, designed to track the success of student veterans at a national level.

Shinseki said at SVA’s 5th Annual National Conference in Orlando, Fla., that the VA was working with SVA and NSC to create an education completion database for Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI Bill beneficiaries that will provide information for up to one million student veterans.

“NSC will then match (GI Bill) beneficiaries against their database to determine how many veterans have graduated or completed a training program,” Shinseki said. “This kind of collaboration is critical. The original GI Bill lasted just 12 years; the new GI Bill is now entering its fourth year — the shot clock continues to tick.”

Meanwhile, the UO continues to monitor national trends and look at what the entire campus community can do to support its student veterans.

 “We can thank our veterans for their service, we can listen to their stories (if they want to share) so that we better understand their experiences and perspectives, and we can take advantage of opportunities to learn more about supporting and serving them,” Jewett said.

- by Aria Seligmann, UO Office of Strategic Communications