Seeking a center, student veterans get a room of their own

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Seeking a center, student veterans get a room of their own

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SLU’s veteran students have secured space for a commons located on the second floor of Wuller Hall. The acquisition came about through efforts by the Student Veterans Association (SVA) and the Student Veteran Success Task Force, which, led by Dean of Students Mona Hicks, unites professors, counselors and off-campus affiliates to advocate for veteran students.

The commons will serve the academic and personal needs of the university’s 336 military-affiliated students. These include approximately 200 veterans, as well as ROTC cadets, spouses and children who receive the transferrable benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill.

Jonathan Hurly, SVA President for the upcoming academic year, explained, “It’s going to be a central hub where veterans could gather all their information, where the SVA could meet. It’s going to be like a little area where they could do work, meet with their families, have lunch.”

Hurly enlisted in the Marines Corps right out of high school, leading to a nine-year tour that included 14 months in Iraq, seven months in Afghanistan, and two years in Japan. Medically discharged in October 2015, he now studies business and intends to work in federal service.

He acknowledged that acclimating to college life on such a delayed timeline can be stressful. “We get these guys—and me myself—coming out of four to ten to 20 years of military service, and you know, the college environment is definitely unique to us,” he said. “And we’re not the same, you know, a lot of us have wives, we have kids, we’re commuter students, we have experiences and backgrounds that make it really difficult for us to relate … with the student body itself.”

The commons fulfils a pronounced need for a tighter social network. “A lot of these guys, they’re used to having something like a battle buddy or a fire team or, you know, a group of people that they kind of rely on, their support,” said Hurly.

Hurly sees an opportunity for growth through the National Organization of Student Veterans of America, which offers $10,000 grants, totaling $400,000 and sponsored by Home Depot, for the expansion of veteran centers. “One of these reasons we were able to acquire the space, schools all over the nation are realizing what it takes to help veterans succeed,” said Hurly.

The Student Government Association recently approved an increase in the VSA’s budget, to $2,000. The funding will help with events, outreach and further veteran support. VSA has also joined the Diversity Leadership Cabinet, which includes 21 other CSOs.

Some of Hurly’s biggest challenges as president will be to unite and engage SLU’s veterans, whom he says “fall into so many different sub-communities on campus”; to improve the veteran attrition rate; to bolster SLU’s regional and national competitiveness with veterans’ benefits; and to develop a process for approving the academic credits veterans earn during their military service.

He is not alone, however. The task force of faculty and staff will provide guidance and make an effort to put these ideas into motion, as they did for the commons.

Michael Bamber, program director for enrollment outreach and territory development, as well as an Army veteran, is part of the task force.

He acts as a military liaison, providing outreach within the Office of Admission. He explained that the university created his position, in May 2012, to better know its military-affiliated population, “coding” them into five categories: active duty, reservists and guardsmen, veterans, family or dependents, and ROTC.

He sees the commons as a “hangout place” for veteran students. He cited Fort Riley, in Kansas, as a benchmark facility and said that UMSL, Lindenwood, Xavier and Loyola Chicago have the kind of veterans centers that the VSA and Task Force aspire to.

In his view, what makes all of these “centers,” recognzed as some of better university Veteran commonspaces, is their consolidation of liaisons and counseling services within one accessible place.

“You have to keep meeting their needs or they’re going to go elsewhere,” he said.

He continued, “It’s an attempt to show them what we have on an academic side, show that yes, we do have services for them, and we want them to be … as successful as students as they were in their military careers.”

Bamber echoed Hurly’s emphasis on the stark differences between veteran students’ backgrounds and those of civilian students: “If you take a look at your 18- to 22-year-old single student in the dorm, look at the difference between the age, the family status, the whole works.”

He also mentioned a 60-percent increase in eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship, which supplements GI Bill benefits for military-affiliated students: this fall, 80 students can apply.

A long-term goal for the commons is to unite SLU’s military liaison, VA-certified official and veteran counseling services within one location. On- and off-campus recruitment and promoting diversity in veteran students’ ranks figure among other goals.

Hurly said he is working on a personal veteran initiative, identifying areas where the school is lacking.

Hurly sees “a lot of potential out there” for engaging SLU’s veteran and military-affiliated students.

He said that ROTC women in particular are a unique group. “Nobody can relate to their experience and prepare them for what they’re about to go into than the women that have already served,” he said.

“Engaging them and getting them together at a single table, that could be a really powerful experience.”

The veteran students’ commons will open on Wed., May 4.