UC Campuses Ramp Up Services for Veterans

When U.S. Coast Guard veteran Daniel Wilson arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 2008, he heard disturbing stories from other vets on campus about being called baby killers.

By Donna Hemmila, UC Office of the President

A lot has changed in two years.

"It's not that same place anymore," said Wilson. "We've worked to change attitudes. ...We're a student group, and we want to be recognized as important. We don't care what people may think about us, but we want to be respected. In 2010, it's an entirely different atmosphere, and we're happy about that."

Wilson, 35, is the veterans student support coordinator in the Veterans Education Team Support program, part of the Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students at UC Santa Cruz. Last year the VETS program won a $100,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation and the American Council on Education for operating a model program in support of higher education for veterans.

Daniel WilsonWilson, past-president of the campus chapter of the national Student Veterans of America and now executive assistant to the western regional director of the national organization, worked with faculty and campus administrators to get one of the prestigious Chancellor's Undergraduate Internship positions dedicated to a veteran student. He served as the first recipient of the honor. Last year, UC Santa Cruz student veterans traveled to Washington to lobby for better benefits.

Wilson is one of a growing number of active student veteran leaders who are changing attitudes and veteran support efforts throughout the University of California system.

"Our vets have developed into being very active leaders on the campuses," said Eric Heng, the veterans coordinator at the UC Office of the President. "They've been some of the most impressive student leaders."

Expanding Support Services

More veterans are coming to UC campuses, armed with the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that now cover the full cost of UC fees along with housing and book allowances. In 2008, the university began ramping up its support services, Heng said, and looking for ways to make the transition to campus life easier for vets.

Most begin their education at community colleges and share some of the same adjustment challenges as civilian transfer students. But they also have special needs, particularly the combat vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Navigating the complicated GI benefits system is one of the first hurdles veterans face. Every UC campus now has a dedicated veterans coordinator and a resource center for vets or dedicated staff in financial aid, student affairs and transfer centers.

At all UC campuses, student veterans receive priority registration. When their GI Bill benefit checks don't arrive on time, campuses provide either bridge loans or fee deferrals while students wait for the funds to arrive. Every campus has at least one veteran student group.

And individual campuses are developing programs and practices such as special orientations, priority campus housing and mental health counseling services.

UC Santa Barbara Fills Housing Needs

RonquilloAt UC Santa Barbara, veterans get priority for campus housing. If they check the veteran's box on the housing application, Mario Munoz, the assistant director of housing, contacts them to accommodate needs like allowing older undergraduates to live in graduate student housing instead of residence halls. He recalled one vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome who was afraid of the dark and stayed awake at night, sleeping in the day. He assigned him a single studio apartment.

They go to the front of the list," Munoz said. "We make exceptions that we don't make for other students."

The campus also will defer rent payments when veterans are waiting for their housing allowance checks to arrive. The Santa Barbara approach is getting interest from other campuses, Munoz said, and it works because of the individual service each student receives.

Veterans Help Their Peers

"Like the majority of vets here at UC Davis, I was a transfer student," said Victor Garcia. "Like other transfer students I felt lost, but more so being a vet. It's a little bit different for us. It's a lot more difficult for us to seek help. We come from this environment where we're trained to be self-sufficient."

Garcia, 32, spent nearly eight years in the Army as a cook and was deployed in Iraq at the outbreak of the war. He transferred to UC Davis in 2009 as a marine biology major and is one of three veteran mentors in the Transfer Reentry Veterans Center.

"We try to offer help without offering help," he said.

Garcia credits veteran services coordinator Phil Knox, a veteran who has worked at UC Davis since 1970, for creating an atmosphere in the center that puts vets at ease and lets them know that there is no shame in looking for help.

At UC Davis, student vets have space in the center to study, use computers and drop in for coffee and donuts every Thursday. The coffee break provides time to talk about their service experiences, school and family issues, Knox said. They organize barbecues and other events for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, giving them a chance to socialize and honor those who have served their country.

UC Vet Population Is Growing

While the total population of veteran students at UC is small, an estimated 1,285 in 2009, many campuses are seeing significant increases. In 2008, when UC Berkeley started ramping up vet services, about 150 veterans were enrolled. This year veteran coordinator Ron Williams expects the number to top 300.

Like UC Santa Cruz, the Berkeley campus is tarred with a reputation for being anti-military. So Williams is especially proud of Berkeley being recognized along with UC San Diego as one of G.I. Jobs magazine's military friendly schools; and last month Military Times Edge magazine named UC Berkeley No. 50 on its 100 "Best for Vets" list. The magazine ranks colleges for their resource programs, financial aid, campus culture and what it calls academic flexibility, a factor that Williams said keeps selective research universities such as the University of California from ranking higher on the list. Unlike some colleges, UC does not give academic credit for military training.

"The veteran students who come here really have to work hard," said Williams. "And they really want to be here. They're very motivated."

This Veterans Day, UC Berkeley will hold its first flag raising ceremony to honor veterans. In 2008, Williams developed a one-unit Veterans in Higher Education course to help incoming vets get acclimated to the rigors of university life. UCLA has added a similar course called Boots to Bruins. Williams recently developed an interactive veterans space on bSpace, the campus online learning collaboration tool. When vets login to course pages, they also can access and post information about benefits, campus events for vets and other veterans' news.

Pilot Project Helps Vets Cope With Combat

Jon-Paul BernardUC Berkeley student veterans have been involved with focus groups and given feedback to the Armed Forces Academic Resources research project based at UC San Francisco. The project is developing online courses for returning veterans and active duty military to understand and overcome the effects of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and stress on themselves and their families and relationships, said assistant clinical professor Brac Selph, the program's director and a Marine Corps Gulf War veteran. The first pilot course, which is accredited through UC San Diego, will be available to 100 veterans in January and focus on the effects of extreme stress.

This was conceptualized as a way to overcome the stigma associated with mental health," Selph said. His goal is to use science to explain the psychological and physiological changes people experience in combat and to help them make meaning out of those experiences.

"Obviously the transition from active duty life to civilian life can be difficult," said UC San Diego recent graduate Jon-Paul Bernard, now a graduate student at Georgetown University. Bernard, who spent eight years in the Army Reserves and served two tours of duty in Iraq, was a founding member of the UC San Diego chapter of Student Veterans of America and is still active with the organization.

"Veterans are older than most students," Bernard, 29, said. "You look around the classroom, and you see you don't have a lot of commonality with them. You're out there on the edge."

When he transferred to UC San Diego in 2007, Bernard said he never felt unwelcome, but there weren't a lot of resources for vets. Bernard said Chancellor Marye Anne Fox threw her support behind student veterans, and today the campus has earned its designation as a vet-friendly school.

Marine Corps reservist Erica Ronquillo, who succeeded Wilson as the Chancellor's Veteran Undergraduate Intern at UC Santa Cruz and as president of the campus Student Veterans of America, said the recognition veterans are receiving raises their confidence and self-esteem. People on campus seem proud to help veterans, she said, and she is proud of the program the students have created at UC Santa Cruz.

"Students with similar backgrounds and experiences can come together and move forward," she said. "It's not a way to exclude ourselves because we're special. One of my biggest goals is to bridge our community with the other communities on campus."

Donna Hemmila is managing editor with the UC Office of the President Integrated Communications.

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