by Carol Sadtler
For thousands of men and women returning from military service, earning a college degree in order to land a good job is a top priority. “That’s the trend. We had 90 new veterans last quarter,” says Josh Gauiran, a veteran liaison in DePaul’s Office of Veteran Affairs (OVA). From a small office tucked in the corner of the 11th floor of the DePaul Center at the Loop Campus, Gauiran and his fellow veteran liaisons, all of whom have served in the military, offer assistance to make returning to school a smoother process for student veterans–support that takes many forms.
Help with Paperwork, Academics
“My first goal is to help them to be stress-free as far as getting their education paid for,” Gauiran says. Student veterans receive tuition, housing and other benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill passed in 2008. Helping student veterans navigate the processes between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and various offices at DePaul and elsewhere–so that tuition gets paid on time and veterans receive the medical care and other services they need–takes time and knowledge of the details.
Additionally, DePaul participates in the VA’s Yellow-Ribbon Program. It is designed to supplement those veterans covered at 100 percent under the Post-9/11 GI Bill with certain other tuition benefits, and DePaul’s financial aid office helps veterans understand this benefit.
“When a student is looking for a check from the VA, you can sit on the phone for hours and hours with no results,” says veteran liaison Chris Kajin, who served seven years of active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard as a chef. “Sometimes the student gets bounced from place to place. We bridge people to the right offices.”
As to academic support for student veterans, Haydee Nunez, director of adult, veteran and commuter student affairs, who oversees the OVA and manages the veteran liaison staff, finds many people on campus eager to help. “What we have found is an overwhelming goodwill toward the population–departments and faculty and staff reaching out proactively to our office, from the Career Center to the Center for Writing-based Learning, University Ministry and advisors from the colleges–wanting to know how they can connect, how they can better serve.”
Fitting in on Campus
The OVA quarterly get-togethers at the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses and the Student Veterans Union’s monthly meetings offer opportunities for student veterans to connect with each other. The choice to identify as a veteran on campus is left up to the student.
“Many students are excited to continue with their identity as a veteran. They join our Student Veterans Union; they are heavily connected with the Office of Veteran Affairs. We liken it to the VFWs of previous eras,” says Nunez. “But we let folks know they don’t have to identify.”
Sometimes the connections student veterans make with each other are more informal. Student veterans who initially come to the office for help with administrative processes often “come back just to say ‘hey,’” says Kajin. “If you come in [to campus] just to go to class, you miss out on so much.”
Getting involved with campus life, either as a self-identified veteran or not, is a process, according to Dennis Trejo. He is a veteran liaison who served four years of active duty in the U.S. Navy as an electrician’s mate and is now part of the Navy Reserve. At first, like many student veterans, he went to class without staying around campus. Eventually, Trejo pushed himself to get involved with the Student Veterans Union because he wanted to get connected with his new environment. He is now president of that group and still gets together with others in the organization on Saturday mornings to volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Trejo, an accounting student who will graduate next fall, says these connections are the best part of his DePaul experience. “We can relate, we have so much in common, we’re all going through the same thing. These are very trying times because of the job market.”
He still feels the pull of military service. As an active reservist, Trejo left DePaul for a deployment to the Middle East last year for five months and says he would consider using his accounting education as an officer in the Navy after he graduates. “I really love wearing the uniform because it’s symbolic of an institution that has high values, core values,” he says.
Gauiran, who served four years of active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now a member of its individual ready reserve component, says that when he left active duty and went to community college in Lake County, he wanted to “disassociate myself from the military.” After a year of college, however, he went to his reserve meeting and signed up for a couple of months of infantry training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he learned a new skill set and enjoyed “just camping out in the mountains the whole time.” By the time he entered DePaul, he says, he was focused and “ready to start his new life.”
“I personally don’t like to identify as a veteran. I try to avoid the subject unless I’m with other veterans. It’s more about the now and the future–fresh starts,” Gauiran says. However, as a psychology student interested in traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, he’s considering a medical career that he says could involve working with the VA.
Loretta Coleman, a business management student in the School for New Learning and a student employee in adult student affairs, is enthusiastic about identifying as a veteran, though she’s older than the veteran liaison staffers with whom she works. “I went to a [DePaul] veterans event even before I started attending classes,” she says. A veteran of six years in the U.S. Army Reserve and four years of active duty in the Air Force as an aircraft fuel systems mechanic, Coleman is also an Air Force spouse. Coleman says she enjoys the camaraderie and the common bond she shares with other veterans. She plans to pursue a master’s degree after she graduates from DePaul and eventually serve as a social worker with veterans and their families.
As president of the Student Veterans Union, Trejo works hard with others in the organization to earn respect and support for student veterans. Last fall, he was a panelist at an event sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and other university, military and civic leaders to declare their commitment to meeting the needs of student veterans on campus. DePaul President the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., was there to pledge the university’s participation.
Wanted: Connections to Jobs
Support on campus also extends to helping student veterans find professional positions after graduation. Both Nunez and Trejo say that student veterans have solid job skills, are eager to work, and are looking to make connections with veterans and other alumni who are already in the workforce so that they can be considered for positions.
“These young men and women have strong transferrable skills–teamwork, crisis management, risk management,” says Nunez. “The younger generation of veterans really wants to connect with the older generation of alumni veterans.”
“I’m hoping that companies start seeing the value that these veterans bring,” Trejo says.