The University of Connecticut is working to help its veterans transition back into school and civilian life by hiring a new director of veteran affairs and offering specialized resources and services.
“The university is moving in a good direction, but there are improvements they can make in tracking their veterans to see where we are at and what we need,” veteran Andrew Lyon said.
Lyon wants the university to keep track of its veterans, to make sure they are getting the services needed and are graduating.
The university’s efforts to be equipped for veterans began last fall 2011 when UConn had about 450 students who were receiving veterans’ benefits. UConn does not have post-9/11 veterans listed separately, but the university estimates they’re about 80 percent of that total. The fall 2012 numbers are currently being finalized.
This spring, UConn will be hiring a director of veterans affairs who will report to the provost. The director will work with veteran students and potential students. The director will also handle policy issues and address the needs veterans have and make accommodations accordingly.
There are resources available to veterans at Storrs and at the regional campuses. UConn has a Student Veterans Advisory Committee. UConn has study lounges for veterans in the student union in Storrs, veteran liaisons in some of the schools and colleges and other services.
Veteran Garrett Taylor said these resources helped him adjust back into school.
“It was difficult for a while, but once I was introduced to the veterans community at UConn, it became easier,” Taylor said.
UConn interim spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said the university is training its medical and mental staff to identify, aid and treat veterans who come out of their service with physical or mental problems. Veterans who have been out of practice with various academic subjects are also offered extra support, she said.
Several colleges have people on their staff that work specifically with veterans. There are UConn staff members that are veterans themselves. Reitz said they are a resource in that they can act as mentors to their student veterans and help them with getting into careers.
In some cases, a veteran’s military experience can affect the way they handle school and its workload for the better.
“The soldier mentality helps me keep up with school standards and expectations,” Lyon said.
Reitz said the university offers flexibility for veterans whose service is active during the time in which they are going to be enrolling. The university has a simplified re-admissions process that can be used if their service is overlapping with school.
“The School of Nursing bent over backwards to help me get registered,” Megan Sirag president of the Women’s Student Veterans Group said.
Sirag, like many currently enlisted, was in the field at the time she was trying to be admitted.
“I was literally sitting on a drill pad setting up my cell phone for a hot spot trying to contact UConn,” Sirag said.
Veterans in Sirag’s position can get activated at any moment if there is a need. Those in the individual readiness reserve can also get called if there is a need. This is problematic for veterans who can’t afford to miss material or in Sirag’s case can only miss one clinical a semester in accordance with UConn requirements.
UConn also works with veterans to ensure the best transition possible in housing, academics, and in the use of their VA benefits Reitz said.
“You get used to a certain way of life and then you are ripped out of it, leaving and coming back is a shock,” Sirag said.
Reitz said that if veterans want to live with other veterans, UConn would make housing available. There has been discussion of setting up a learning community for veterans. Each veteran has a different preference and some want diverse choices in housing. Reitz said UConn has been vocal about working with veterans to make their experience ideal.
Reitz said that veterans contribute to the diverse atmosphere at UConn and show the different paths students can take.
“They really do exemplify different options. You can serve your country then attend school or go into the military after,” Reitz said.
Many veterans are older than the average student, who may be away from home for the first time. The difference between the two is often experience.
“I did my-away-from-home transition at 17 when I was stationed in Spain for two years working a full time job for the military,” veteran Joshua Scafidi said.
For veterans who have been living by themselves for the past seven years overseas there is a contrast to living in a dorm with others.
“Being a product of the military and having been overseas, I’m much more aware of my surroundings and the implications of my actions,” Taylor said.
The life experience can endow veterans with a sense of independence and maturity, veterans said.
“The military teaches you how to take care of yourself, which prevents you from falling through the cracks,” Sirag said.
Taylor and others said at times there is a lack of understanding between veterans and their fellow students. They said they often have to explain why they are not traditional students. Taylor said he was sometimes asked inappropriate or uncomfortable questions relating to his service. These issues with relating to civilians can be avoided, he said.
“We are people just like everyone else and there are lines you can overstep” Taylor said.
Some veterans said that there is hesitation at times between both groups when it comes to socializing. Lyon said there are common stereotypes about veterans that are untrue.
“We are not this intangible group of dangerous people,” Lyon said.
UConn officials said they could best serve their veterans if they come forward and make their needs known.
“UConn has a great deal of gratitude for their military service and will do anything they can for veterans to have a good educational experience,” Reitz said.