After an 11-year overseas stint in the Marine Corps, it might seem that Jennifer Esparza’s first term as a UO student would be a cakewalk. Instead, according to Esparza, an international studies major, transitioning to college from the structured and familiar environment of the military was more than a bit daunting. “When you’re in the military, you feel like the base is kind of your safe space,” she says, “so knowing that I didn’t have that safe space, it was really trying to figure out everything on your own—basically, how everyone else has to do it in the world. It was a little scary.”
According to the US Government Accountability Office, more than five million service members will transition out of the military by 2020. Already, more than 1.4 million service members, veterans, and their families have taken advantage of the expanded education and training benefits afforded them by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, signed into law in 2009.
Over the course of a year, about 450 veterans attend the UO. They face a variety of challenges as returning students—from acclimating back into civilian life to finding housing and employment. Many are dealing with physical disabilities or mental issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or military sexual trauma (MST). Adding college to the mix often means struggling to strike a balance between family obligations and financial restraints while attempting to navigate admissions, GI benefits and financial aid, class selection, homework, and fitting in with the rest of the student body—all of which can be overwhelming. As one student veteran candidly put it, they are “students with baggage.”
David Harrenstein, a junior majoring in family and human services, was 17 when he left for boot camp two weeks after graduating from high school. He served in the Marines for 10 years. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, he is a first-generation college student, but the transition from soldier to student hasn’t always been easy. A self-described “high-strung, motivated” Marine with a six-month tour in Iraq under his belt, his level of experience and maturity, as well as his work ethic, has seemed at odds with his younger student peers.
“Being in the Marine Corps was pretty much all I knew,” Harrenstein says, “so coming back to school at 27 and being around a bunch of 18-year-old students who haven’t been in that sort of very structured environment was frustrating for me.”
However, involvement with the Veterans Family and Student Association (VFSA) on campus helped Harrenstein find other veterans with similar backgrounds and experiences. The VFSA organizes social events throughout the year and holds weekly meetings that give veterans and their families an opportunity to interact and learn about what’s happening in their community. The group also organizes club activities and service projects, hosts potlucks and barbecues, and sets up panels relevant to veterans’ issues.
“Getting involved with the VFSA gave me a sense of purpose, and I felt like I belonged somewhere,” Harrenstein says. “They help people get their feet on the ground. I was the recruiting officer for the VFSA last year. I helped a lot of people and I felt that it helped me evolve within student life.”
Under the auspices of the Office of the Dean of Students, the UO offers a variety of programs designed specifically to meet the needs of veteran students. In her role as director of nontraditional and veteran student engagement and success, Justine Carpenter assists student veterans with their transition to the university and with completing their educational goals. This involves providing group programs to support the needs of the student veterans as well as working individually with each student to identify specific areas of need.
A first stop for veterans on campus is the Student Veterans Center. Recently relocated from its cramped quarters in Mac Court to an expanded and more accessible space in the new wing of the EMU, the student-run center provides a comfortable space for veterans to get together. “Many of our programs are launched from the center and it serves as the day-to-day touch point for many of our veterans,” Carpenter says. “They stop in between classes, study, have coffee, and make connections.”
Students have access to several computer stations and can take advantage of quiet study and lounge spaces. Program coordinators, VFSA members, and student workers help them access community service providers, identify veteran-specific scholarships, learn about workshops, and master new technology. “It’s a place where veterans can come and be themselves. It’s kind of our home away from home,” says Harrenstein.
It is also where a new peer-advising program, Peer Advisors for Veteran Education (PAVE), will be housed. The program connects incoming student veterans with returning student veterans to ensure the new students have the support they need to be successful.
Esparza initially found out about the PAVE program after attending the Student Veterans of America (SVA) conference. The program is a collaboration between the University of Michigan Depression Center, U-M Ann Arbor’s Department of Psychiatry, and the SVA. PAVE, which debuts at the UO this fall, replaces the former Dog Tags to Ducks program. “With PAVE, we’ve actually recruited students from all over campus, not just within VFSA,” Esparza says. “They’re military, but may not be as active in the program. They’ve got their lives going but have experienced their own hurdles on campus.”
The program uses a database to identify student veterans via a line on the admissions form that allows them to indicate their veteran status. A PAVE coordinator, a team leader, and nine peer advisors will be available as mentors, liaisons, and ambassadors to assist veterans with everything from academic issues and counseling to referring them to resources for daycare and housing.
PAVE can help keep veterans from feeling isolated, says Maria Kalnbach, a graduate student and the project coordinator at the Student Veterans Center. “It’s really hard for them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need help,’ so just checking on them might reveal, ‘I don’t have enough money for food this month,’ or ‘I’m really struggling with housing,’ or ‘I hurt myself and I’m not really sure how to navigate the VA.’ Having somebody who understands to connect them and keep them connected will help with the transition.”
A feeling of belonging is a vital first step for any new student, but Esparza says that despite attending the UO’s mandatory freshman IntroDUCKtion, she felt disconnected. “They put on a lot of great stuff for students, but I didn’t attend a lot of them because I felt like, I’m 30, why do I want to go to a party?” she says. “A few of us talked about how we lacked information that really pertained to us through IntroDUCKtion. The Veteran Welcome came out of that conversation.”
Now in its second year, the Student Veteran Welcome, according to Carpenter, is a huge success. Newly enrolled student veterans are invited to attend the daylong introduction to available services—on campus and in the community—as well as to meet their peers. “Each of the students who attended last fall reported overwhelmingly that they felt better prepared for the transition to student life at the University of Oregon and that it was helpful to them in preparing for their classes,” she says. “Students make connections and form friendships that will become a part of their UO community and that will last beyond their time here.”
Indeed, researchers report that a sense of belonging, cultivated through friendships, is critical to any student’s success. This is especially true for student veterans who have come from an environment such as the military where peer support is a central precept. Peer-mentoring programs are key to helping new student veterans overcome challenges such as meeting academic expectations, establishing balance between academic and life responsibilities, relating to nonveteran students, and coping with service-related injuries.
One program in the works is Got Your Six. The origins of the phrase can be traced back to World War I fighter pilots, who likened their planes to a clock face, the front position being 12 o’clock and the rear position, six o’clock. On the battlefield, the “six” position is the most vulnerable, so when someone tells you that they’ve “got your six,” it means they’re got your back. The goal of the program is to build awareness about student veterans: not only their challenges, but what they bring to the campus as well. Veterans often overlook their own contributions, which often include a wealth of knowledge, maturity, strong leadership skills, life experience, and resiliency. “Our student veterans are leaders and they bring so much, not only to the university but to the community at large,” Esparza says.
As part of her involvement with PAVE, she has reached out to the Holden Center for Leadership and Community Engagement to set up seminars that tap into the leadership qualities of campus veterans. She explains the importance of rank in the military and how that can translate into leadership. “When you first start here fresh out of the military, it’s hard to grasp that it’s not all about position anymore,” she says. “I think a lot of veterans struggle with this idea that, ‘I know better because I’m older and I’ve served in the military.’ We want to identify what leadership looks like here on campus when you take away the rank—how you can still be a leader, but an equal to everyone else.”
Veterans can also participate in a new national program called Team Red, White, and Blue. Local chapters provide opportunities for veterans and the community to build rapport through physical activity and community involvement. They host fitness activities, social events, and volunteer opportunities. According to Esparza, getting into physical activities off-campus was a great stress reducer. “I started getting back into running once I found out about Team Red, White, and Blue,” she says. The group meets once a week and they’ve added Saturday walks for those who don’t run. “It’s something that a lot of student veterans are taking advantage of. It’s a really great program to get veterans out into the community and involved and active.”
Additional resources on campus include the Accessible Education Center (AEC), which offers support and services to all students, and the UO Career Center, which offers peer advising and assistance with résumés and cover letters as well as job and internship searches.
Breaking down stereotypes
Another important element in helping veterans successfully transition to student life is education for the general UO community that is geared toward breaking down some of the stereotypes. A few abiding misconceptions are that every veteran was on the combat front lines, or that they all suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Although many veterans may have stressful or traumatic experiences, not all develop PTSD. And according to Esparza, veterans on the UO campus are a diverse crowd.
“There are five different branches of the military and they serve in so many different capacities and come from so many different cultures and backgrounds. In fact, we have a veteran who is the head of a fraternity here,” she says. “The biggest part of having these programs is giving veterans the opportunity to recognize that we’re all on the same page now. We’re all veterans—we’re not soldiers or Marines.”
Programs like Got Your Six work with faculty members and the public to help bridge the divide by challenging stereotypes in the classroom (through learning about military history and veteran experience), understanding the tangible and intangible skills gained in the military, destigmatizing mental illness and PTSD, and helping nonveteran students reconsider the way they think by encouraging them to have conversations with veterans.
A bright future
For Harrenstein and Esparza, the transition to college has been positive overall.
Harrenstein plans to go to work as a park ranger with the Bureau of Land Management after he graduates, and says he hopes to retain his association with the UO’s veterans programs. “I’m very passionate about helping other veterans,” he says. “The one thing I would tell them, in terms of adapting to everything, is just to stay calm. It’s hard, but I would encourage them to come to the veterans office and get help if they need it.”
Esparza says that participation in the various student-veteran programs has not only helped her find her niche on campus, but also led her to become an advocate for underrepresented students and to map out a future for herself that includes law school.
She hopes to take some of the principles of the UO’s veterans programs and apply them to a career working with international communities. “In international studies my focus is law, human rights, and the Middle East, so I’m hoping I can figure out how to tie it all together.”
She is also a candidate for the prestigious Tillman Scholar Program, which recognizes military service, leadership, and academic excellence. The UO is a university partner in the Pat Tillman Foundation, which names 60 Tillman Scholars each year.
“It’s taken me two years to realize that I can be active on campus without necessarily joining a sorority,” Esparza says. “There was a fear that I wouldn’t fit in. But I’m starting to feel like I do.
“There is a space for me.”
—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Webfoot Warriors, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Oregon. Students who meet the eligibility requirements and stick with the program receive subsidized tuition and, after graduation, are commissioned as officers in the US military. The curriculum consists of courses in military science and history as well as practical skills and leadership training.
The ROTC program traces its roots to the National Defense Act of 1916, a bill signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson barely a year before the United States entered World War I. Prince Lucien Campbell, the UO’s president at the time, established the first ROTC curriculum at the university, placing a retired British military officer in charge. More than 100 students participated in the first drill in March 1916.
The unit received a General Douglas MacArthur Award for the 2014–15 academic year, recognizing it as one of the top eight Army ROTC programs in the country. According to the unit’s records, the University of Oregon has produced more general officers than any nonmilitary ROTC program in the country.
The program celebrates its 100th year on campus with the Alumni Association hosting a weekend, September 2–3, filled with celebrations to honor dedicated ROTC alumni, friends, family, and service members. The events will kick off on Friday, with a reception in the evening, followed by a tailgate on Saturday before the football season opener at Autzen Stadium. For more information, visit uoalumni.com/ROTC2016.