Colleges Offer Critical Support for Student-Veterans

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Arizona State University hosts an annual Salute to Service week that honors student-veterans and those in active service. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)

Military-friendly schools play a crucial role in helping veterans transition from military to civilian life by providing them with essential skills and qualifications for successful careers, while honoring their service and sacrifice.

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill of Rights, established the foundation for today’s schools to support veterans by providing financial assistance for education and prioritizing veteran-focused policies and programs.

Over the years, colleges and universities have expanded their efforts to include a wide range of initiatives, such as dedicated veterans offices, specialized academic counseling services, scholarships and financial aid, and student clubs and organizations.

This work is crucial, as veterans face unique obstacles and challenges when entering college, adjusting to a nonmilitary environment, and managing ongoing physical or psychological injuries. In addition, only 15% of student-veterans are the traditional age of college students and nearly half have children or are married, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Institutions offering tailored resources and support systems that address their specific needs result in a more inclusive and supportive educational experience. Auburn University, Coastal Carolina University (CCU), and Arizona State University (ASU) are at the forefront with innovative initiatives.

Auburn University

The Veteran Resource Center at Auburn University works to ensure the success of nontraditional veteran and military students beyond simply managing the educational benefits at the state and federal level, says Paul Esposito, director of the center.

Paul Esposito

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that a student-veteran gets everything covered … and that couldn’t be any further from the truth,” he says. “A lot of them [are] struggling and as we discovered this, we [found ways] to support them in more than just getting their benefits taken care of.”

One unique program is Operation Iron Ruck, a partnership between student-veteran associations at Auburn University and the University of Alabama to raise awareness and funding for suicide prevention.

In the days preceding the Iron Bowl.— the annual rivalry football game between the two schools — student-veterans each take 22 pounds of donatable items in their rucksack and carry the Iron Bowl game ball across 151 miles from the visiting school’s stadium to the home team’s stadium. The 22-pound weight signifies the estimated number of veterans who die by suicide every day, a statistic largely cited by advocacy groups from a 2011 VA study.

“The highlight for me has always been the fact that it’s not just to raise awareness; people use it as almost a cleansing,” Esposito says. “They need to get out there and be amongst other people trying to stop this epidemic.”

Other initiatives advance fundraising across the university, including the Auburn Student Veterans Association Gala, which raises money for military-affiliated student scholarships.

Students participate in the annual Operation Iron Ruck, carrying 22 pounds for more than 150 miles to represent the estimated number of veterans who die by suicide every day. (Photo courtesy of Auburn University)

Auburn Warrior Orientation and Learning program, a veteran-specific experience for incoming students; Green Zone Training, which allows staff and faculty to learn how best to support and interact with veterans; and a clothing locker and book exchange for those who need assistance in meeting basic needs.

Coastal Carolina University

At Coastal Carolina University (CCU), the office of Military and Veteran Services provides a physical location to make connections and discover resources.

Dance Killough, who served in the army and is currently a junior studying anthropology and geography, says the most impactful program for him has been Warrior Wednesday, a weekly meeting where student-veterans on campus have lunch and converse for a couple of hours.

“There are even times when we can invite local veterans groups to the meeting to tell us about other veteran programs,” says Killough. “[It] gives us a break from normal student life.”

Recently, the CCU Board of Trustees approved a financial aid program that offers a reduced tuition rate for individuals who are serving active duty National Guard or as a reservist in local units. For those who qualify, tuition totals $250 per credit hour for part-time students and $3,750 per semester for full-time students.

“Talking to some of the National Guard folks, they have a difficult time because … they have so many different commitments that working during school is not [possible]. … So any kind of extra benefit that we can provide to them is certainly a help,” says Randy Burk, director of Military and Veteran Services at CCU.

CCU also offers the Boeing Military to Civilian Success Program, launched in 2019, a career and transition leadership development program for veterans. Students learn techniques on how to succeed as a leader and transfer learned skills to the civilian workplace.

The university also offers recognition to service members, including military appreciation games in collaboration with the athletic department, and a veteran graduation reception complete with regalia specific to one’s military branch. Green Zone Training is also available to faculty and staff at CCU.

Arizona State University

The Pat Tillman Veterans Center (PTVC) at Arizona State University (ASU) assists active-duty, veteran, and veteran-dependent students. The PTVC works in conjunction with the school’s Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, which promotes dialogue, teaching, and research on military, civilian, and academic cultures across campus.

Student-veterans participate in the inaugural Arizona Warriors’ Wilderness Journey, a four-day wilderness immersion experience in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)

Shawn Banzhaf, PTVC executive director, says efforts are developed with a trauma-informed approach, focused on ensuring active-duty service members and veterans feel welcomed, loved, and cared for.

One distinctive program is called Treks for Vets, which invites student-veterans to take a four-day hike in the wilderness — totaling more miles than a marathon.— that allows them to participate in philosophical discussions, face physical challenges, and make friends.

“The veterans really get a sense of healing from everything — the wilderness, the food, the camaraderie, the readings, all of it works in synchrony to create some healing space,” says Banzhaf.

There are nearly 21,000 military-connected learners at ASU, and Banzhaf has conducted what he calls an informal survey with a small pocket of veterans across campus, asking them how they value themselves on a scale of 1 to 10.

“The average is usually around a three,” he says. “So that tells me something: That they don’t know their intrinsic individual value away from their team. We’re trying to add value back into the veteran. That’s a big obstacle. I see it continuing [for some time].”

ASU is also a part of Veterans Upward Bound, a federal program. At the university, the initiative assists low-income or first-generation veterans in Maricopa and northern Pinal Counties with improving their academic skills and transitioning to college.

Further efforts recognize and support veterans across campus. Similar to Green Zone Training, the Proving Grounds program trains and educates faculty and staff on military culture. A campuswide event known as Salute to Service also celebrates veterans for 10 days.