Guest Blog: Make It Count

By Student Veterans Association President and CEO, D. Wayne Robinson.

As you settle into the new semester, make it count by lending a helping hand

20140817_SVASeattle2014-62[1]By the time you’re reading this, classes have started up on college campuses around the country and the semester is in full swing. The scene is much the same as in years previous: syllabi have been handed out and summarily discarded, students justify ignoring the professor with a PowerPoint presentation they’ll wait to open until the night before the final, and the lecture halls have stratified themselves into the barely conscious in back, and overly alert and eager in the front.

You may notice one difference, however. Around campus and in among the mixed enthusiasm in the classroom are a handful of veterans. You may also notice that that handful is just a little bit larger than the few you spotted last semester, and the one before. This is no coincidence, and it isn’t unique to your campus.

Since the attacks of September 11 2001, close to 3 million veterans have served in our armed forces[1], and all will soon have returned to their homes and communities. Of those, roughly a third have been and are expected to take advantage of their GI Bill™ benefits[2]. That’s a lot of degree-seeking veterans, and chances are, they’ll end up being your partner on a group project, or the guy who holds open the lecture hall door for you.

With the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, student veterans have their pick of any public institution nationwide, as long as they take advantage of their benefits and enroll within three years of service separation.  This has dramatically broadened their educational options, which means that the handful you encounter now will soon fill out more of the classrooms around campus.

SVA-Leadership-Conference-San-Diego-20140809-289[1]As the presence of this population grows, so too does the need for on-campus, veteran-focused resources. We at SVA stress the importance of peer-based support through our ground-up chapter structure employed on 1,100 campuses nationwide (and growing), and projects such as our VetCenter Initiative. While camaraderie and shared experience is indispensable to the long-term success of student veterans, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Some of these veterans will come with wounds both visible and invisible, with internal struggles and physical barriers, but all will need you to go that extra mile.

These struggles and disabilities look different for each veteran, and often are not visible. This can be aggravated when environmental barriers and a lack of on-campus supports prevent physical, academic, and social access to veterans who aren’t always aware of their disabilities. Add intensive military training that inhibits self-care and negative stereotypes into the mix, and the formula for failure is complete. With a bit of mindfulness, however, equal access need no longer be accommodated.

A truly veteran-supportive campus is one where both familiar faces with familiar experiences can be counted upon to empathize, and unfamiliar faces with vastly different backgrounds are willing to strive for understanding and cooperation. A kind word, a friendly nod, or a heartfelt handshake can speak volumes to a struggling student veteran.

The same can be said of the campus’ administration. Support services provided in a non-stigmatizing, encompassing manner can make a world of difference. “The key to engagement lies with positioning support services as part of a team effort for all students to achieve success, not as a remedial effort for individuals expected to fail,” says The NASPA Foundation, in a study[3] demonstrating that the content of service programs matter just as much as the delivery.

With backing from peers, and a welcoming student body and accommodating administration, student veterans have the tools to make sure they have the same opportunity to hang their prohibitively expensive diploma in a $14 frame as everyone else. So, whether it’s on the way to class, cramming in the library, or grabbing some lunch in the dining hall, make your semester count by lending a hand to a student veteran.

For more information on our programs and initiatives, or to find a chapter near you, please visit http://www.studentveterans.org.

Guest Blog: Enhancing Veteran Engagement at College

By Madeline Wagner, Associate Director of Grants and Contracts- Northeast Iowa Community College, Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring Program

Student veterans bring new experiences and perspectives to social and educational exchanges at a college – however, they also face unique challenges in completing their academic and career goals.

There are myriad reasons that veterans decide to pursue higher education:

  • College degrees or certifications improve career options
  • It’s an opportunity to build additional skills, and
  • Higher education codifies skills and knowledge achieved in the military.

Furthermore, higher education can offer a transition period as well as resources and assistance in the move from military to civilian life. In support of these goals, the Post 9/11 GI Bill has provided over 700,000 veterans financial support for education and housing (U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, 2014); unfortunately, just over half of student veterans earn a degree or certificate (Altman, 2014).

To realize these benefits of higher education, student veterans must overcome certain challenges or barriers that traditional students don’t encounter. Schools nationwide have been developing a range of resources to help student vets reach their academic goals. There is no one answer to how a school should support this student population – and it won’t happen overnight.

Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) has earned a place on the Military Friendly Schools listing, compiled by G.I. Jobs magazine, for five consecutive years, but there are still many pieces to put into place before we reach our goals of comprehensive support services for our student veterans. Central to NICC efforts to assist student veterans in their academic and career goals is the Vet2Vet Peer Mentoring program, which recently became a chapter of Student Veterans of America.

Many student veterans report a sense of alienation when they join the college world. A supportive learning environment can ease the transition process. NICC recognizes that some veterans may feel disconnected from the mainstream of the student body. Community building with students, faculty, and staff who have had similar experiences is one strategy to increase engagement. Student veterans groups offer positive experiences and opportunities to interact with the broader campus community that help veterans to transition smoothly from service to the classroom.

In the 2013-2014 school year the Vet2Vet group partnered with two other student organizations to conduct awareness and inclusion activities on campus including a presentation about how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) impacts returning veterans and their families and an MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) demonstration in observation of Veteran’s Day.

Beyond a supportive community student veterans may need assistance in navigating resources to address issues that are non-academic in nature, but still impact academic achievement. Currently at NICC, the Vet2Vet peer mentors (who are discharged veterans, students still serving on active duty, or members of the National Guard or Reserve) are the first line of assistance in helping student veterans connect with Veterans Affairs. Supported by the campus coordinator of disability services, the Vet2Vet staff helps student veterans fill out forms to secure medical resources, connects student veterans with campus services, and provides referrals to other outside organizations.

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President. 

Ivan Torkelson, District Director, American Legion of Iowa Foundation, Elgin; Amy Tharp, student scholarship recipient and US Air Force Veteran, Fredericksburg; Dr. Liang Chee Wee, NICC President.

It’s important for a school to determine which services should be crafted as veteran-specific. Some services (such as academic advising) may not need a veteran focus because the entire student population benefits (American Council on Education, 2012). It is also important to remember that not all student veterans will want to take advantage of targeted services, or be identified within the broader college community as a student veteran.

In the upcoming year NICC will build its commitment to student veterans by taking the following steps:

  • Providing faculty and staff with veteran-friendly service training
  • Codify policy regarding student veterans’ leaves of absence
  • Building a web presence for veterans
  • Exploring the need for a dedicated veteran services staff member
  • Working with other state higher education institutions to develop firm credit-for-prior-learning standards
  • Partnering with statewide veteran-friendly initiatives such as Home Base Iowa

What services and best practices have your organization found most helpful in supporting student veterans?

Veteran Stories- Renita, U.S. Navy

Renita's Story

Renita, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, recently found herself in a sudden financial predicament. This mother of 2 made a decision to go back to school this year, taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits available to her.

A major part of the GI Bill is that the VA pays a monthly stipend for veterans in school, called the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). As part of the program Renita was taking, she had the chance to do an externship, set to start April 1.

Unfortunately, the externship site was not quite ready, and did not begin until mid-May. Therefore, she would not receive the stipend she was truly dependent on during school. With her May stipend having been cut in half, Renita ended up finding part-time work – but was still going to be short on her rent.

When she applied for DVNF’s GPS (Grants to Provide Stability) Home program, she explained that she had done all she could, but could not find help for this temporary setback.

When DVNF approved her grant, she said, “The GPS Home grant has prevented my family and me from being homeless with nowhere to go. I can’t thank you enough for your kindness and generosity. Now, we are back on track and are able to keep a roof over our heads.”

Temporary financial problems happen unexpectedly. We can’t help every veteran, but we certainly wish we could. DVNF depends on people just like you to lend your support  to our mission.  With a donation, you could save a veteran like Renita from homelessness.

Veteran Unemployment Numbers Improving!

Reasons to Hire a Vet

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released its June unemployment numbers. As you may be aware, jobless numbers have been slowly, but steadily, decreasing over the last couple of years. What you may not know is that the unemployment rate for veterans has been much higher than the national average.

Not anymore. It is very encouraging to see the continued progress that has been made on the veteran job front. The overall unemployment rate for veterans currently hovers around 6.3 percent, which is down from 6.6 percent in May!

This number is down over a whole point from June of 2012, which is very good news. Gulf War Era-II veterans, a demographic that has been hit the hardest by the recession, has a current unemployment rate of 7.2 percent—lower than the national average, and an astonishing 2.3 percentage points below June of 2012!

Why is the veteran unemployment trend improving so much? The VA believes much of it has to do with their programs such as Veteran Retraining and Assistance program (VRAP), and initiatives such as Hiring Our Heroes.

DVNF agrees.

Another big part of it is likely the collective agreement of the general public that no matter the issues that we as civilians might be facing, those who have served our country are anything but “average.” Veteran unemployment should never exceed the national average, because veterans—simply put—are exceptional.

There has been a national effort to dispel the erroneous assumptions of veterans returning from combat. Many employers (or at least the smart ones) see the value of hiring veterans. They are incredibly disciplined and hard working. In addition, many nonprofit groups and large corporations have created targeted programs and hiring initiatives.

Though there is much work still to be done, we are uplifted by the improvement. Thousands more veterans have been discovered as the outstanding employees they are. It can’t stay a secret much longer!

UPDATE: Legislation Introduced to Address In-state Tuition Problems

As discussed in a previous post, the state-to-state disparity when it comes to the GI Bill has been a major issue among veterans who are choosing to pursue a college education. The problem has been that most states have wildly differing laws on the books on what constitutes an “in-state” student. Some have enacted legislation to give veterans some exemptions or leeway on these rules, while many others have not.

If a veteran is eligible for GI Bill benefits, but is an out-of-state student, then the GI Bill can only pay what they would if the veteran were an in-state student. Unfortunately, the nomadic nature of military service often makes it difficult for a veteran to declare state residency, especially if they want to attend a college soon after they finish their service, but don’t have the required year-long tenure within that state.

Fortunately, the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, and Ranking Member, Mike Michaud, have introduced legislation to address and solve this common problem. The GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 “would require schools eligible for GI Bill education benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates even though they may not be residents of the states where the schools are located.”

As Ranking Member Michaud stated, “Because of the nature of military service, veterans often have a difficult time establishing residency for purposes of obtaining in-state tuition rates.”

According to the press release issued by the Committee, the bill is a bipartisan effort that has already received an outpouring of support from nonprofit groups, such as the Student Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Disabled Veterans National Foundation (DVNF) is also pleased with this bill, because if it passes, the bill will help veterans make a college decision based on their own personal criteria, rather than having their decision influenced by a lack of funds. It will also clear up confusion on what constitutes in-state tuition, and will make veterans’ GI Bill benefits that much more effective. This bill is long overdue, and there are likely thousands of veterans it would impact directly.

 

Opinion: GI Bill issue has common sense solution

The Washington Examiner published a recent article discussing in-state residency requirements of the G.I. Bill. While the G.I. Bill is an outstanding resource for veterans after they conclude their service in the military, there is a glaring issue that should be addressed.

It should go without saying, but serving in the military results in sacrifices being made. Some sacrifice blood, others sacrifice relationships, but one sacrifice that should never have to be made is education. That is the whole purpose of the G.I. Bill in the first place—so a veteran will be able to pursue his or her education after serving their country.

Unfortunately, sacrifices are having to be made by some because of in-state residency requirements. The Examiner article presents several veterans who were deemed out-of-state residents in accordance with state laws. The difficulty, however, is that due to military service, most service members are usually not in the state of their original residency, and have to move frequently with reassignments.

To give a hypothetical example: I was a Missouri resident when I entered the military. After multiple assignments in different states, I concluded my final 6 months of service in North Carolina. I enjoyed living there and decided to settle down and take advantage of my G.I. benefits to go to college. At the public institution I wanted to attend, I wouldn’t be eligible for in-state tuition because I haven’t lived in North Carolina for an entire year, and the G.I. Bill won’t offer much assistance on that front because it will only pay the actual net cost of in-state tuition. In other words, since I am not technically a resident, I have to pay the difference on the out-of-state tuition the G.I. Bill does not cover.

Though this example is hypothetical, this is a harsh reality for the veterans highlighted in this article, as well as for veterans around the country.

Sadly, only a few states have passed legislation to counter this provision. More need to do so. However, even among those states that have made attempts to address the in-state status issue, it is still confusing because the stipulations are all different, and few are definitive.

Regardless of what action is taken, every state should make every effort in its power to fix this problem. It doesn’t matter what each state’s plan looks like, but the end result should be to allow veterans to claim in-state residency so they can use the G.I. Bill for its intended purpose. Education costs should not have to be a burden on veterans, and they should not be penalized for the fluid living situation that comes with the territory of military service.

Until something is done, veterans who have to pay the difference on out-of-state tuition should look to veterans organizations for scholarships. DVNF’s scholarship program will open the application process on February 1st. The $1,000 scholarship is a great way to help offset the out-of-state tuition difference, as well as private schools whose tuition exceeds the G.I. Bill’s limit.

DVNF Announces the Return of Scholarship Program

In 2011, Disabled Veterans National Foundation decided to launch a scholarship program for veterans in need of tuition assistance. Though most veterans receive the GI Bill, sometimes all tuition costs are not covered. The first round of scholarships was a big success, and because of the great response we received, we are happy to announce that we are continuing our scholarship program again this year!

Applications are now being accepted for this $1,000 scholarship until December 1, 2012. Selections will be made in December, and the recipients will have checks mailed directly to the accredited institution of their choice at the beginning of January prior to the start of the spring semester.

This is such a valuable program because there are cases where the GI Bill does not cover certain expenses. Several recipients of the scholarship last year needed this extra bit of funding because the GI Bill did not cover all out-of-state tuition costs, or, in other cases, it would not pay for all of the costs if the veteran chose to attend a private school. There were also many veterans who had already used their GI Bill and needed assistance for graduate school.

“I want to express my sincere gratitude to your for making the DVNF Scholarship possible. I was thrilled to learn of my selection for this honor and I am deeply appreciative of your support” said one last year’s recipients. “The financial assistance you provided will be of great help to me in paying my educational expenses, and it will allow me to concentrate more of my time for studying!”

To learn more about the scholarship program and the eligibility requirements, please visit http://www.dvnf.org/veterans-programs/scholarships/. If you are a veteran, or know a veteran who might be in need of this type of assistance, we encourage you to apply!