The University of Georgia has established a stronger home base on campus for veterans.
Services that were hard to find and often went unused are now more noticeable.
On April 17, the Student Veterans Resource Center opened on the first floor of the Tate Student Center. The SVRC provides veterans a place to network with other student veterans, as well as learn about different opportunities to get involved on campus.
“The resource center is all about getting student veterans connected with different programs [such as] SGA, yearbook, the radio station, Greek life, the LGBT resource center, international student life and the center of leadership and service,” said Bill McDonald, the dean of students.
With cozy leather seats and Georgia-themed artwork on the walls, the SVRC is warm and inviting for any veteran.
“That alone I think is a fantastic step because the University is showing through that they are recognizing that there are veterans here, and giving them a resource and a place to go where there is information for us to have access to,” Marcus Griffin, a junior from Peachtree City majoring in Latin, history and classics, and a member of the UGA chapter of Student Veterans of America, said.
Arriving on campus can be overwhelming for any new student. For veterans, they are coming in with entirely different life experiences that can make life on campus be a challenge.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you get out of there,” said Matthew Fowler, a junior from Loganville majoring in political science and minoring in history, and the president and co-founder of UGA’s SVA. “Any time you have to transition out of a career, it’s hard. That’s what these veterans are doing — leaving their careers to go back to school. There’s so much unknown there.”
But thanks to some veterans voicing their needs and opinions, UGA is adapting to become more veteran friendly.
“I would say [UGA] was veteran capable, but I really wouldn’t say veteran friendly, simply because trying to find the resources and the offices that I needed to contact was a difficult thing to do,” said Shannon Mikus, a second-year masters student of landscape architecture from Gunnison, Colo.
That was Mikus' feeling two years ago when he first enrolled at UGA. Now, he sees positive improvements and changes.
“Once I found the people who interact with our veterans, the administration here on campus did their job well, it was just finding them that was the big challenge,” Mikus said.
Accessibility is one of the many things that UGA was aware it needed to improve on.
“I don’t think the school hasn’t wanted to do anything or ignored it,” Fowler said. “I just don’t think it’s really been brought to their attention. But that’s changing now, it’s changing in a big way.”
UGA has been actively working to establish the SVRC at Tate, but the work doesn’t end there. A list of objectives for the fall includes plans for a $100,000 fundraiser to establish and dedicate a student veteran lounge and a peer mentor program through Counseling and Psychiatric Services at the University Health Center.
“We want to support them, have forums with them a couple times a semester to see what’s going on, have a graduate assistant in the SVRC,” McDonald said. “It’s going to be an advocacy group.”
The faculty has been extremely receptive to all of the new ideas and changes.
“They’re making big moves in a very short period of time,” Fowler said.
There are also plans for orientation.
“We’re trying to set up an extended part of orientation for veterans so that right when you come on campus people like myself and plenty of other vets immediately have a contact,” Griffin said.
They hope to intercept the veterans from day one so the new students never feel overlooked or lost.
“Part of the challenge is that they’re at different places in their lives,” McDonald said. “Some are married with kids, or in their mid to late 20s, had a tour or two within their time in the military. They’ve had a different life experience.”
Mikus already had a family when he was accepted into UGA. He spent 20 years active duty in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft maintenance officer, and spent four months in Afghanistan in 2006. For Mikus, finding a housing option that accommodated him and his family was one of the more challenging things. He wishes there had been a “more realistic assessment of the cost and types of housing available in Athens.”
“I didn’t have any contact here on the ground, so I was kind of a slave to the undergraduate market,” Mikus said. “There is family size housing that is affordable, but you aren’t going to find advertising on it.”
Griffin felt an indifference from the University when he was applying.
“It would have been nice to have on the application a better way to articulate my level of being a nontraditional student,” Griffin said, who went straight out of high school to the U.S. Marine Corps as a sergeant. “It just asked, ‘Have you served in the military?’ Yes, move on to the next question.”
When he arrived on campus, he needed to meet with his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs representative so he could register for classes and receive his G.I. Bill funding, but he had trouble finding him even after asking his orientation leader and faculty.
“They didn’t know what the hell I was talking about,” Griffin said.
Aspects like that can be frustrating for any veteran, and it will take time for everyone, not just the faculty involved, to have a better awareness of the student veterans on campus and what programs are available to them.
McDonald hopes that in five years, there will be a very clear veterans center that has veteran students getting involved in all aspects of student affairs.
“We will be advocates for veterans in other areas, as they need — that’s our goal,” McDonald said.
Student veterans should feel at home when they walk on campus, just like any other new Bulldog student.
“I don’t want veterans to be separated as a special group of people,” Griffin said. “They’re regular students who just happened to serve in the military.”