UCF nursing student Darris James loves helping military veterans.

James is a veteran himself – he spent 13 years in the U.S. Navy, including time as a Navy corpsman – and that shared experience has given him common ground with other veterans.

“I really enjoy being around the vets,” said James, who will graduate with more than 3,600 others — including other military vets from the College of Nursing — on Saturday at CFE Arena. “I get a chance to listen to some of their stories and build a rapport with them. I am a vet myself, and I like being around them to remind them that there are people who still care about them.”

He’s in good company among his fellow College of Nursing students on the University of Central Florida’s Cocoa campus. The nursing program there has developed a special relationship with the nearby VA clinic – and the many veterans it serves.

The busy Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Viera provides services to Brevard, Volusia and Indian River counties, an area that’s home to about 100,000 vets.

“It’s been marvelous,” said VA clinic nurse Audrey Hibbard, who recruited UCF nursing students to help provide services for homeless veterans. “Their efforts have allowed me to provide much-needed health education to these vets. I’m thrilled – this is a very skilled, professional group.”

It’s also a good relationship for UCF, said Krisann Draves, a lecturer at the College of Nursing’s Cocoa campus who helps coordinate activities involving veterans.

“With the Viera VA clinic so close, it is such a great partnership for us to be able to continue to reach out to our veterans,” Draves said. “Anybody can be in a bad situation at any time, so I think to be able to honor them for their service can be very uplifting for them.”

Students pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) do clinical rotations at the VA clinic, gaining critical experience.

But it doesn’t end there. The students have put on flu shot clinics at the VA facility, launched drives to gather supplies for veterans, and spearheaded educational presentations for recently homeless vets.

Nursing Students Present

Sarah Johnson and other nursing students share health information with formerly homeless veterans at a transitional housing complex.

Many students participate in “Stand Downs,” one-day events organized by the VA to provide help to homeless veterans. Vets can receive everything from hot meals to haircuts and dental care. Organizers also connect them with available resources and make sure they’re receiving the services to which they’re entitled. Knight nursing students help with medical intake, and escort veterans throughout the day.

“My main goal is to work with veterans,” said Rhonda Pullis, a senior in the College of Nursing. “It’s a very unique sacrifice they’ve made. They’re a very deserving population, and I just don’t think that most civilians truly know what the active duty member goes through, and what the military families go through.”

Pullis understands, though. She served eight years in the U.S. Air Force, and her husband spent 20 years as an Air Force pilot. She enrolled in UCF’s BSN program after her son finished college.

On a recent afternoon, five nursing students from the Cocoa campus crowded into an apartment living room in Victory Village, a transitional housing complex in Titusville for homeless disabled veterans. They delivered a health and hygiene presentation to 10 military veterans who until recently had been on the streets.

The vets seemed reticent at first, but when they heard that some of the students were veterans themselves, they soon became engaged. Some stuck around to chat with the students after the hour-long discussion, which was part of a series of presentations by students in partnership with the VA clinic.

“I’m really passionate about helping veterans, especially homeless veterans,” said Sarah Johnson, president of the UCF Cocoa Student Nurses Association, which has organized sock drives and other homeless service activities. “They’ve given so much to their country, and they’re the people that everyone says they care about and want to help, but they’re the ones who are most often forgotten.”

Johnson, James and Pullis are expected to graduate with their BSN on Saturday, along with other seniors helping veterans, including Bill Hickman, Lindsay Hayes and another military vet, Brian Hosken. After earning their degrees, they’ll be eligible to take the national licensure exam for registered nurses.

Ninety-eight percent of UCF’s BSN graduates pass the RN licensure exam on their first attempt, and that’s one reason a recent report ranked the College of Nursing among the top programs in Florida and the nation. The report revealed that UCF is second out of 150 programs in the state, and in the top 4 percent of the 778 programs nationwide.

In addition, U.S. News & World Report recently named the college among the top 25 “Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs for Veterans” for 2015. In that category, the college ranks 23rd in the nation and is the highest-ranked program in Florida.