Soldiers to Scholars: Student Veterans Build a Community of Support
Maybe it’s the way he speaks or the way he carries himself. It’s not hard to tell that UCF criminal justice major Emerson Bielen served in the military, and he’s never surprised when classmates ask.
“The Marine Corps,” he responds. And if they ask if he’s been “you know, over there,” he tells them he spent nine months in Fallujah, Iraq. “Sometimes somebody will ask, ‘Did you ever kill anybody?’ … And I answer, ‘I’m sure most of the people in the military never killed anybody,’ ” he says.
It’s the kind of awkward experience shared by student veterans that can separate them from other students on campus.
Bielen is philosophical about the misconceptions classmates can have about veterans — ones that he says are shared by society at large. “I think some people do believe we all just killed a lot of people and are messed up in the head,” he says.
But while Bielen knows there are student veterans who face physical and emotional difficulties, he says that for most of his peers the daily challenges are “probably no different from any other student — just trying to stay on top of everything you’ve got to do.”
A Growing Population
UCF has nearly 1,600 student veterans, a population that has grown from about 200 in 2006. It is a wave that may not crest for years as more than 2 million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While it’s true that veterans share the challenges faced by traditional students, their circumstances often present additional obstacles, says Paul Viau, director of UCF’s Veterans Academic Resource Center (VARC). The center opened three years ago as a one-stop shop for veterans’ resources and has become an academic and social hub for vets, who use its public space and study rooms.
According to Viau, UCF’s veterans are a diverse group. While a few are in their 50s, most are in their late 20s or early 30s. The majority enlisted after high school, served four to 10 years, and came to UCF after two years at a state college. About 25 percent of UCF’s student veterans are women.
“They often have other things going on outside the classroom — families, jobs or other obligations,” Viau says. “They’re also at a different level of maturity from the more traditional students, so it can be tough for them to fit in on campus.”
A Cultural Transition
Bryan Batien, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist who counsels student veterans at VARC, has witnessed the challenges of readjusting to civilian life.
“Even if you leave out the issues of combat, the military is a very structured environment,” says Batien, himself an Army veteran of the Iraq War. “When you return to civilian life, when you come to a college campus, those are big adjustments. And a lot of veterans aren’t going to feel like they have much in common with the other students here.”
Stacy Schumpert admits she wasn’t going out of her way to get involved in campus life when she came to UCF to pursue her master’s degree in social work.
At age 24, she joined the Air Force after four years of college and served five years of active duty, including a year as a combat operator in Iraq. Coming to UCF as a single mom and an Air Force Reserve member, she says, “I was really in my shell, just focused on what I was doing.”
But an adviser who was a veteran and a member of the campus veterans’ organization, now the Student Veterans of America UCF Chapter, encouraged Schumpert to get involved. “I showed up at a meeting, and the next thing I know I’m the president,” Schumpert says. “It was that peer-to-peer connection that brought me out of my shell. I think that’s really important for veterans, and that’s what we want to build on.”
The Student Veterans of America UCF Chapter and VARC both help to build community with veterans on campus — a place where vets find support, guidance and an understanding ear, Schumpert says. “I think it’s hard for people to understand if you haven’t served in the military, but this is a group of people you would give your life for,” she says. “I know they’re people I can rely on, because we have shared experiences and values.”
Conversely, Schumpert admits, it can be tough to find common ground with classmates who haven’t shared those kinds of life experiences.
“You’ll see students, especially younger ones, who are wearing sweatpants to presentations or talking on their phones in class,” Schumpert says. “I know I was guilty of the same kinds of things when I was an undergraduate, so I get it. But it still bothers me.”
If the student veterans sometimes don’t know what to make of their civilian classmates, the opposite seems just as true.
A Challenge to Fit In
“I never announce that I’m a veteran; I don’t wear a camo backpack or anything,” says Melissa Smith. “But sometimes it comes up.”
Smith joined the Army at age 17, four days after graduating from high school. She trained as a medic and a nurse, spent three years on active duty, including two years in Iraq, and completed five years in the Army Reserve.
Smith, who is completing her bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences, wants to be a pediatrician and is applying to medical school. She was 25 when she started at UCF, and says she had little in common with other students.
When other students learn she not only enlisted at 17 but also served in Iraq, it’s often a conversation stopper. “I get blank stares a lot,” she says. “People will say, ‘What’s Iraq like? Is it really hot?’ I think they just don’t know how to process it.”
Sometimes people will thank her for her service; Smith would rather they didn’t. “It’s always awkward,” she says. “I’m not sure what it is they’re thanking me for, and I’m never sure how to respond to it. Should I thank them for thanking me?”
For student veteran Lucdwin Luck, the pride and sense of discipline and leadership instilled by his service as a U.S. Marine remain the characteristics by which he defines himself.
Selected for embassy security duty, his assignments included Japan, Brazil and Syria. In Damascus, Luck was one of five Marines assigned to the security detail. What he took away from those experiences weren’t long stretches far from home or the potential danger, but the unique opportunities it afforded him.
“The Marine Corps was a terrific experience for me,” Luck says. “Here I was, this young guy in these places all around the world, working with diplomats and civilians. I really learned how to interact with people on a level unlike anything I’d ever been exposed to before.”
Those experiences fueled Luck’s thirst to know more about everything. A political science major with minors in business, economics and sociology, Luck is considering a range of careers. “I want to be involved in the community, maybe even run for political office,” he says. “I want to do something where I’m making a difference.”
Speaking to Student Vets About Their Service
It’s not rude to ask veterans about their military service, says Bryan Batien, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist who counsels UCF student veterans. But it’s important to approach the subject in a way that respects each veteran’s sensitivities.
“Some veterans don’t like to talk about their military experiences, but many others would be glad to share them,” says Batien, an Army veteran of the Iraq War. “But starting out with a question like, ‘Were you in combat?’ can be too intrusive, even insulting,” he says. “Start small, just engage in simple conversation and ask open-ended questions like, ‘What did you do in the military?’ — something they can answer according to their comfort level. And judge by their response whether it’s something they want to talk about or not.”
Batien says it’s worth the time to get to know about the experiences of classmates who have served in the military. “One of the things I love about veterans on the campus is the richness [of experience] they bring,” he says. “These are people who have not only been around the world, but who have witnessed events that have changed the world.”
A Story of Success
While the struggles of veterans are more likely to get public attention, Batien says that the success of student vets at UCF is what should be focused on. And while some student veterans experience issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder, such as sleep problems or anger issues, Batien says, “[They] are working through it and overcoming it. They’re succeeding.”
Batien’s presence on campus is provided through the VA’s Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) program — one of fewer than two dozen VITAL programs around the country. For the student veterans he’s assisted at UCF, Batien says it’s beneficial that VARC brings together all the resources available on campus: Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Disability Services, Transfer and Transition Services, and Career Services.
VARC resources provided much-needed support when Darrell Holmes needed help. After a career in the Air Force, Holmes tired of temporary work and decided to pursue a degree. But he found he didn’t learn as easily as he had in his youth, and that a hyperawareness of his surroundings made it difficult to tune out distractions.
“I was having trouble retaining information,” says Holmes. “I’d listen to a lecture and understand what the professor was saying, but in a few minutes it was gone.” Holmes says he was diagnosed with a learning disability, possibly related to the 12 years he spent as a boxer.
When he turned to VARC, he says, “I was stunned by how quickly they were able to help me. Tutors, extra time for some of my work, a note-taker, even a recorder so that I could repeatedly listen to lectures — it all made a huge difference.”
While his studies have gotten more challenging, his grades have improved, he says. Holmes is confident he’ll attain his goal of earning a law degree and providing other veterans with legal assistance.
“I practically live at VARC,” he says. “It provides that calm and quiet I need to focus on my work, and also a chance to spend time with other vets, people who I feel that common bond with.”
But there are still veterans on campus who haven’t connected to the services that are available to them.
A Hub of Support
To help veterans prepare for job interviews, VARC holds an Academic Boot Camp, where volunteer peer mentors have been enlisted from among the student veterans. These mentors are reaching out not only to new students, but also to those who have been on campus for a while, says Schumpert. “Judging from the reaction we get, a lot of [student veterans] don’t know what’s available, which is what we’re working to change,” she says.
That’s why I volunteered to be a peer mentor. I had a hard time connecting with other students when I got here. I’d like to do what I can to make new student vets have an easier time than I did.Jeff MacGibbon, ’13
“It’s easier for veterans to open up if they’re talking to other veterans,” says Jeff MacGibbon, ’13, an Air Force veteran and business management graduate. “That’s why I volunteered to be a peer mentor. I had a hard time connecting with other students when I got here. I’d like to do what I can to make new student vets have an easier time than I did.”
Bielen, also a peer mentor, says even when the veterans he reaches out to seem reluctant to seek help, at least they know there’s a place to turn. “We’ll talk about what it’s like being on campus, being older than everybody else and how weird it is or whatever — really just trying to make that connection,” he says.
VARC also hosts a dedicated orientation for incoming student veterans, whether they’re using veterans benefits or not. “UCF is a big place,” Lorine Cisch Taylor of Transfer and Transition Services told a group of 16 new students at a recent VARC orientation. “There’s a lot of, ‘That’s not my department, you need to go across campus.’ There’s a lot of red tape. My job is to help you cut through that red tape.”
Batien introduced himself at the orientation, tossing two foam rubber hand grenades into the crowd — “stress relievers,” he said to laughter — and told students not to hesitate in turning to him or using available services on campus.
Before marching the new students to registration, Viau encouraged them to use VARC’s lounge and study rooms — “the best-kept secret on campus” — and shared the mantra of VARC staff and volunteers: Use the help that’s here for you.
His closing words were of the sort familiar to anyone who has worn a military uniform: “Your mission now is to finish your degree.”
Soldiers to Scholars:
UCF Student Veterans Serve the Community
Created in 1996 by former state Rep. Alzo Reddick, the UCF Soldiers to Scholars program works in conjunction with the GI Bill to help honorably discharged veterans achieve their higher education goals. In exchange for five hours per week mentoring at-risk youth, participants are eligible for financial support for tuition, textbooks and housing. Their community service includes walking children to and from school, facilitating an after-school education program and assisting with regular health fairs run with support from UCF’s School of Social Work and the College of Nursing. Available to those seeking undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees, the program, which operates under the direction of UCF’s Defense Transition Services, serves about 35 student veterans per year. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Charles Hite, the program’s associate director. “They get their college degree, and they give back to the community.”
For more information, visit soldierstoscholars.org.