By Sen. Lisa Baker
Chair, Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee
As many families help their favorite college coeds pack for time-honored, tree-lined campuses across the nation, many of our nation’s protectors are doing the same.
This back-to-school preparation is far different from the packing our men and women in uniform did before their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. And while the hazards of the battlefield may seem far behind them, these experiences still cast a powerful shadow over their relationships, reactions, and every other facet of their campus experience—especially if they returned home as a wounded warrior, with scars, whether visible or invisible.
A veteran of the Iraq War recently contacted me about the barriers he encountered in transitioning from combat to campus. “I thought these programs were to help those who have so generously given their lives and time to the service of their country, but where is the reciprocity? . . . . We as veterans must jump through hoops to get benefits promised to us,” he wrote in frustration, after discovering that many schools were less than helpful.
Another said he experienced a mild form of culture shock after enrolling in college. He encountered well-meaning educators and administrators who had no idea of the benefits owed to him, the academic credits earned through his military service, or the experiences he survived. After being in such a highly regimented, high-pressure military world, he had difficulty navigating campus life and relating to teens who had just graduated from high school.
These young veterans represent some of the more than 20,000 Pennsylvania heroes who have returned home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As they come back in force, it is evident that the education and military sectors need to join forces to support student-veterans in their reintegration to civilian and student life.
Pennsylvania has one of the most frequently deployed National Guard units in the country, and the third greatest number of colleges—behind only California and New York. As an academic and military leader, we should be leading the charge to provide back-to-school support and take care of those who have taken care of us.
Our Senate committee held a hearing last year which vividly illustrated the need for student-veterans to receive more veteran-specific information and support during the transition from combat to campus, and a centralized place for information and camaraderie.
At our hearing, we were surprised to hear young veterans say how alone and alienated they felt on college campuses, and to hear administrators say that they want to help but do not feel equipped to do so.
Student-veterans said a starting point lies in a centralized, easily accessible point of contact on campus and a better understanding of transfer policies. And if they were to be activated again, they wanted to know how to leave without losing tuition or earning a black mark on a transcript.
After the hearing, we formed a working group and tapped into the experience of other states, the feedback of the Student Veterans of America, community colleges, private and public universities, and veterans’ service organizations.
The good news is, we found some Commonwealth colleges that already have inclusive campuses. But many colleges need to do much more. They should offer successful academic transition programs and support services to maximize veteran success, along with flexible administrative processes to accommodate military mobility requirements.
One large university, for example, has an Office of Veterans Services which gives excellent preadmission counseling. It waives the application fee for student-veterans and participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program. The school has an involuntary resignation process for veterans called to active duty, a financial aid counselor to answer questions, and an emergency fund to support wounded student veterans. It offers a veteran-specific orientation program, disseminates a monthly newsletter and promotes the activities of the university’s Student Veterans of America chapter.
Yet another state-related school just cut the ribbon on a new Veterans Resource Center, with dedicated space to interact with fellow student veterans and get information about benefits.
We need minimum statewide standards and state leadership to better coordinate campus-based efforts and articulate programs. Legislation has been introduced to create a one-door system. If Pennsylvania passes this measure, we will truly make campuses more veteran-friendly.
The Developing Opportunities for Veterans Education (DOVE) program will track veterans accessing higher education, promote more transparency in college veterans’ services, and foster greater acceptance of veterans and their military experience. Student veterans can better meet their campus needs through a veterans office or designated staff person and coordinate services with other key offices, such as financial aid, admissions, behavioral health, and housing.
The bill would require each college, community college and university to designate a single point of contact for veterans, from whom they can receive help with admission, benefits, peer mentoring, and other academic, social, personal and financial needs. Colleges would also be required to promote their veterans’ services and programs on their website and in their campus brochure, post their withdrawal policies for mobilization and deployment and credit transfer on their website, and track and report the number of veterans through the application process.
The Department of Education would be able to certify a campus as a veteran-supportive campus, which would mean it offered such things as a campus survey of student veterans to identify needs, a campus steering committee to share information, student-veteran orientation programs, peer mentoring and support programs, outreach strategies to local military bases, and a centrally-located, one-stop resource and student center.
As another school year commences, it is time to remember those who have sacrificed so much for our academic freedom, and our day-to-day liberties. We must honor our obligations to them.
While some of Pennsylvania’s most prestigious institutions are on the cutting edge of military-friendly programs and services, we need to deploy more resources to help every soldier on every campus.
As the Army credo goes, we will leave no soldier behind.