Local universities scramble to support student vets

Valerie Verra

Photo by Angela Modany
Valerie Verra, the veterans service administrator at American University, said the process of handling veteran-related paperwork has grown increasingly complex in the last few years.

DMV universities create veteran offices for troops-turned-students

By Angela Modany

The end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan means that thousands of veterans are trading their knapsacks full of survival gear for backpacks full of books.

Universities nationwide, meanwhile, are scrambling to attention.

Over the past three to four years, universities in the Washington, D.C., area saw an increase in veteran enrollment. In response, they’ve created veterans affairs offices and fine-tuned their services to better aid and guide the increasing number of vets on campus.

“We are their transition between the military and civilian work,” said Katie Fox, the office manager and transition coordinator at George Mason University’s Office of Military Services. “We’re a stepping stone.”

Creating space

One of the oldest veteran service offices in the D.C. area is the Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success, located at the University of Maryland, College Park. The university opened the office in the fall of 2008, not long after the school’s student veteran organization, Terp Vets, formed in 2007.

Tasha Vanterpool, the coordinator of the Veteran Student Life office, said the formation of Terp Vets prompted the university to pay more attention to student veterans.

“Having a veteran center on campus is extremely important to help veterans,” Vanterpool said. “On any given day, we have 50 people come through the veteran center.”

Georgetown University’s veterans office was born out of similar circumstances.

Barbara Mujica, the faculty advisor of the Georgetown University Student Veterans Association, said when her son came back from serving in Iraq, his graduate school had an office to help him – but Georgetown didn’t have anything like that.

Mujica helped form a veteran support team. And in 2011, with the Student Veterans Association, which started the year before, they established the veterans office.

David Shearman, the veterans office coordinator, considers it a major accomplishment that the university was able to establish a fully functioning support system for veterans so quickly.

“The university thinks in 10-year planning cycles,” he said. “So we accomplished something in just about a year. From the perspective of the deans, the administrators, the university leadership –  progress for student veterans was at breakneck speed.”

Michael Ruybal

Photo by Angela Modany
Michael Ruybal, the coordinator of George Washington University’s Office of Veteran Services, said GWU’s veteran population has increased dramatically since 2009.

Things developed just as quickly at George Washington University, according to Office of Veteran Services coordinator Michael Ruybal. The GW Vet student veterans group was established in 2008, and within a year Ruybal said the university created the
veterans service office.

Universities needed to move fast in order to keep up with the sudden influx of student veterans.

Ruybal said George Washington University has seen a 300 percent increase in its veteran population since 2009. At George Mason University, Fox said her office has gone from a cubicle, to a room in the admissions office, to a separate office just for veterans.

“Over the last couple of years, there’s been an increase of veterans coming back to school,” Fox said. “The need to have our own space became greater and greater.”

Valerie Verra, the veterans services administrator at American University, said the number of student veterans jumped from less than 80 in 2010 to roughly 200 this year. And more veterans means more paperwork, which Verra said has become increasingly complex.

“Where it used to take me about five minutes to do a certification online, it now takes me between 30 to 35 minutes for a certification,” she said, referring to the forms veterans fill out to prove what classes they are taking. “I’m already certifying people for the summer because I don’t want to get behind.”

Relating to experiences

In many of these university offices, student veterans find another veteran or a relative of a service member sitting behind the desk. Shearman is an Army veteran and both of Fox’s parents retired from the Army.

“It is nice, I think, to have somebody on the other side that they are talking to, like me, who has been deployed,” said Ed Schaefer, a Navy veteran who works as the veteran affairs coordinator at Catholic University of America.

Ruybal, an Army veteran, agreed that being able to relate to student veterans is an advantage.

“I relate to the vets when they come in,” he said. “We talk as if we were in the same office and the same platoons. I have the same military mindset that they have.”

Serving the service members

For the most part, veteran students are very similar to their non-veteran classmates. They attend lectures, write papers, and take exams.

But veterans often need help completing veteran-specific tasks, which usually require
mountains of paperwork.

“It takes them a couple semesters to get used to doing paperwork,” Fox said. “The military did their
paperwork before.”

Shearman said Georgetown’s office helps with paperwork, but also answers questions. Unlike their younger peers, veterans didn’t have high school guidance counselors available to help steer them in the
right direction.

“A lot of times, they just don’t know what the questions are to ask, how to start the process, where to look,” Shearman said. In many ways, he added, Georgetown’s office helps veterans sort through the maze
of academia.

Georgetown has 500 student veterans and students who are currently on active duty, according to Shearman. One of those student veterans is T.M. Gibbons-Neff, a Marine veteran and president of the Georgetown Student Veterans Association.

Gibbons-Neff started at Georgetown in September 2011. On his first day of new student orientation, he found out one of his friends was killed.

“It really framed my first semester,” he said.

The experience of juggling academics and visiting friends at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that first semester was “weird, but not debilitating,” Gibbons-Neff said. He said the veterans office was there to help him fill out Veterans Affairs paperwork, and figure out his benefits.

“My vet to student experience has been very positive,” he said.

Gibbons-Neff encouraged other student veterans to share their stories on college campuses. Vanterpool said she is often at the other end of those conversations in her office at the University of Maryland.

“A lot of times I’m just an ear,” she said. “I do a lot more listening than I do talking. Sometimes people just want to talk and they just want to be heard. I just try to hear everyone’s experience.”

Disclosure: Valerie Verra, in her role as veterans services administrator at American University, offered guidance on the “Half the Battle” survey.

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
What did you miss2

Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

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