UO's peer advisors help veterans shift from military to college

Like many veterans, Jennifer Wilder found the transition from military life to a college campus to be a difficult one.

She spent four years, 10 months and 23 days in the Navy, deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a disabling back injury. Her career in higher education, including stints at Klamath Community College and Oregon Institute of Technology, had gone in fits and starts, and she found the college experience overwhelming at times.

When she enrolled at the University of Oregon two years ago, she sometimes had trouble relating to the younger students who make up much of the student body.

“A lot of kids coming out of high school never had to worry that someone is going to kill them,” she said. “We’ve had to deal with that on a firsthand basis.”

Today Wilder is one of 10 advisors with Peer Advisors for Veteran Education, or PAVE, a program in its fourth year at the UO. As its name suggests, PAVE connects veterans with veterans to provide peer support and help veterans new to campus navigate college life, identify resources and provide a sense of community.

The program began at the University of Michigan in 2012 and is now operating at 46 campuses across the country. It provides support and resources for all military-affiliated students, including veterans, spouses, children and members of the National Guard and reserves.

Veterans have always been part of the college experience, but after original G.I. Bill became law in 1944, millions of veterans took advantage of the benefit to earn college degrees or get job training. By 2020, more than 2 million veterans will be on college campuses in the United States, according to PAVE.

The precise number of veterans enrolled at the UO is hard to quantify. An estimated 432 students currently receive benefits from the Veterans Administration, though many of those are spouses and children of veterans, said Maria Kalnbach, coordinator of nontraditional and veteran student engagement and success at the UO. About 191 certified veterans receive VA benefits at the UO, according to Mary Earp, veteran benefits coordinator.

The actual number of veteran students may be higher, however, because not all veterans receive benefits, nor do they all self-identify as veterans.

The peer advisor program at the UO got a boost earlier this year when the UO Foundation approved a $25,000 grant from its Trustee Excellence Fund, allowing PAVE advisors to receive an hourly wage, Kalnbach said.

Advisors go through training and track their interactions with other veterans and identify issues that arise, such as mental health and tutoring. They try to make connections with other veterans, whether through social events, workshops or even just talk over a cup of coffee.

“The transition from the strict and structured lifestyle of the military to the lax and make-your-own structure out in the real world, and in college, it’s stressful for anyone, but especially for veterans,” said Caitlyn Sweat, who leads this year’s group of advisors.

“It can be extremely overwhelming,” she added. “We’re here to make that transition smooth and help them mesh back into society and get connected.”

Sweat is a biology major, with an emphasis on neuroscience and behavior, who is on track to graduate this spring. She’s a Navy veteran who was stationed out of San Diego and served on the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, working in aviation ordnance.

“A lot of moving and building of bombs,” she said.

After getting out of the Navy Sweat attended community college in San Diego, then started looking at West Coast colleges to attend. When she saw Oregon had a neuroscience program, she decided to take a leap and “follow my gut.”

When she got to the UO, a PAVE advisor contacted her and invited her to a coffee social, where she met fellow veterans at the Veterans Center office in the Erb Memorial Union.

“They did their job in bringing me into the community,” Sweat said. “Creating community is extremely important.”

Advisors get names and email addresses of self-identified veterans and get in touch.

“The initial contact can be a little awkward,” she said. “We explain who we are and what we do. We reach out to them and let them know we’re here if you need us. If you don’t, we’ll still be here.”

Ken Barrett remembers when a PAVE advisor reached out to him when he first got to the UO. Barrett, a 31-year-old from Florence, spent 10 years in the Army National Guard and did two tours, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.

“He just started being warm and inviting, telling me what I should be doing, advising me while being a friend,” he said. “It was super helpful. I had no idea what I should do, like how to schedule classes.”

Barrett is a senior majoring in accounting and minoring in Japanese and economics. He decided to become a PAVE advisor just to pay things back, he said.

“I figured it helped me a lot, so I wanted to help others,” he said.

Israel Garcia, 43, served 22 years in the Army, working as a combat medic and in human resources and retiring as a sergeant major, the highest rank for an enlisted soldier.

Like many veterans, he struggled with the transition to college life. Though he did a lot of writing in the Army, he said he found the sheer pace of college classes to be a challenge.

“It’s hard for me to learn,” he said. “Professors go so fast, and those kids are unbelievably smart.”

Garcia is studying business and has applied for the operations and business analytics major. After he graduates, he’d like to open his own coffee roaster, perhaps go to work for a company like Amazon or work as a patient advocate for the Veterans Administration.

He likes helping veterans solve problems, drawing on his own experiences as a student veteran. His first job after retiring from the Army was working as a veterans’ employment specialist with Goodwill of Lane and South Coast Counties.

“I have a lot of resources in my head and people I know,” he said.

For example, when he talked with a veteran student intending to go full-time at the UO this fall and who struggled to afford food, Garcia referred him to Catholic Community Services, which has a great food pantry, which he knew from his time at Goodwill.

In another instance, a student veteran was sleeping on the floor of his apartment because he couldn’t afford furniture. The veteran’s PAVE advisor logged the issue, someone put it on a Facebook group, and moments later, people were offering the veteran free furniture.

“It’s a simple little network we have,” he said. “Vets helping vets. It’s just amazing.”

By Tim Christie, University Communications