September 20, 2018 | ° F

U. strives to assist student veterans

As people across the country celebrate Veterans Day, the University is taking strides to enhance its resources for the men and women who served our country.

Vice President for Student Affairs Gregory S. Blimling said the University is more equipped than ever to assist veterans, adding today's events celebrating Veterans Day are the most in recent years.

"I think this shows the University's new emphasis on trying to respond to the needs of our student veterans," he said. "In the past three years, we have actually increased the number of student veterans at Rutgers by 42 percent."

By enhancing the resources for student veterans provided by the University, Blimling said the number of these students could only be expected to increase over the next few years.

Among the many resources provided by the University is the Office of Veterans Services, directed by Col. Stephen Abel who Blimling said is a valuable source at the University for any veteran.

"He has done just a remarkable job of pulling everything together," he said. "Prior to joining Rutgers, he was the deputy commissioner of Veterans Affairs for the state of New Jersey and spent 27 years as an officer in the U.S. Army and he is a full colonel."

To explain how the University improved services for veterans, Abel said Military Times EGDE ranked the University No. 21 out of 101 universities that place success of veterans as a main priority.

"[The University] has a lot of services that help veterans and the creation of my office is one of those things," he said. "It is a place where a veteran can go regardless of what his or her problem is and get assistance in solving that problem."

Earlier this year, Abel said Veteran Affairs attempted to retrieve $7,000 from a veteran student at the University because of a financial aid complication, and Abel's office stepped into help.

"[Veterans Services] was able to very quickly resolve that issue with the VA and the veteran didn't have to do it," he said. "The veteran was able to focus on his studies. So it is a clearinghouse for any problem a veteran has whether it is academic and social."

Abel said his office also helped older veterans secure more comfortable housing, saying putting such veterans in a residence hall with first-year students is unrealistic.

"The oldest veteran student we have on campus right now is 57 years old and his roommate is 46 years old. They are in graduate housing and are sharing a suite," he said. "So I think Rutgers is doing the kind of things that will allow veterans to actually succeed."

Another feature Veterans Services offers for these students is a mentoring program set up by the University College Community that Abel said is effective in helping the transition into an academic setting for student veterans.

Susan Schurman, University College Community dean, said the faculty and staff mentors, who are veterans as well, provide the necessary support for a student veteran to succeed at the University.

"Basically, it helps them think about how one navigates this rather large institution that's very different from the other very large institution they just left," said Schurman, University Veterans Service coordinator. "There is a really big difference between the military services and major universities."

Although many student veterans will acclimate to the University without problems, many others will have a difficult transition and Schurman said this is why the mentoring program is there.

"If people are having difficulty and if it is related to their service, they tell us that it is much easier for them to have a conversation with someone who is a veteran," she said. "[And] especially for those who have also been combat veterans."

But Schurman added many veterans desire a more peer-to-peer mentoring group, an element Veterans Services is in the process of developing to allow student veterans to better connect and adapt.

"In other words, they want students who are a couple years ahead for veterans, in addition to and not instead of faculty and staff who were probably veterans," she said. "So one of the things that we expect to see over the next year or so is a student mentor program as well."

Abel said although the mentoring program is valuable for student veterans preparing for graduation, the need for peer mentoring is still there and is an issue discussed frequently among his colleagues.

"I think the advice from someone who is a senior falls on fertile ground as opposed to that from a veteran who is almost 60 years old," he said. "Although they can give the same advice, the rapport is instant."

Academic assistance for student veterans is a high priority for Veterans Services but Abel said many veterans also need help for mental disabilities from time in combat or the Armed Forces.

Abel said his office helps many student veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, with such student veterans supported by the Office of Disability Services for Students.

ODS Director Gregory Moorehead said his office is dedicated to helping student veterans deal with the mental effects of war and the struggles created when adapting to an academic environment.

"If they suffer from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, to just name a couple, our office is here in order to provide them the support that they may need to transition back into the academic setting," he said.

This support could include acquiring an isolated setting for student veterans to take exams or adding the necessary time to finish it. But the true meaning of the office is to provide the much-needed advocacy for student veterans, Moorehead said.

"Our office would help those students in advocating and communicating on their behalf," he said. "We're in conjunction with those students and their instructors to see what kinds of modifications would be appropriate for those students under those kinds of circumstances."

Although his office is ready at any time to serve the needs of student veterans at the University, Moorehead referred to the number of students using this help as "very, very few."

"And when I say very few, I am talking about the single digits and I'm talking about the low single digits," he said. "We're hoping to see an increase. We are certainly here to serve veterans and we want to make sure they understand that Rutgers is a supportive environment."

Moorehead said both his office and Veterans Services understand the difficulty for such student veterans, adding this is why the University made the effort to improve services over the past few years.

"We realize we're going to see more men and women coming back from the Armed Forces," he said. "We want to make sure that we are providing them the opportunities that they deserve to continue their education."

With the Veterans Services Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for the new office taking place at 2 p.m., Abel said it is reminder of how important veterans are not just to those who served but the University community as a whole.

"It is another great step that shows the diversity of Rutgers. Those who will attend tomorrow's events and who will thank veterans in the Rutgers community aren't necessarily supporters of the current war," he said. "But they've been able … to separate politics from the soldiers."

Moorehead said a way to look at Veterans Day is to ask how one should support veterans across the country.

"The way we can do that here at Rutgers University is by creating a very supportive environment that is academically rigorous but at the same time, pays attention to the needs and interests that are unique to the veteran community," he said.

Schurman echoed the words of Moorehead by saying the main goal of Veterans Services is to ensure student veterans find the University as a comfortable place.

"We celebrate Veterans Day because by honoring those who have served, we communicate to our veteran students that in the present and future, we recognize what they have contributed and we are grateful," she said.

Schurman said although she is not a veteran herself, Veterans Day is close to her heart because of her father's service in the Marine Corps during World War II and the many other relatives who served for their country.

"I think I and many of us have that same family history," she said. "So for many Americans, Nov. 11 is a day in which we honor those who served our country and particularly those who have given their lives for our country.

Devin Sikorski

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