New USD Veterans Center fulfills students’ needs

It has only been a few weeks, but since the new Student Veterans Resource Center opened on the USD campus, it has rarely been empty.

"It's rare that I'm the only one here studying," said Eric Gage, former president of the USD Veterans Club. "This room is probably one of the biggest deals for veterans on campus that I can think of."

Located at the Temporary Student Center, the room had its official ribbon-cutting Nov. 13 and offers student veterans a venue to study, interact or just take a break between classes.

"Veterans can come and do their homework, print off a study guide, have a cup of coffee, get benefit information and just feel safe and belong," Gage said. "It's quiet here, and everybody here is in this room for a reason. It's not that we're trying to segregate ourselves from everybody else, but in a common space it can be very loud. It's very uncomfortable, and veterans don't like to be in crowds.

"We each have our own unique needs and things we have to deal with, and in this room, it's safe," he said.

If a student veteran has gone there once, they most likely will be there again – and often – Gage said.

"Everybody is welcome," he said. "Even if it's somebody you've never met before, you strike up a conversation because you know you have things in common with that person."

USD's veterans coordinator Jason Dean said the acquisition of the room is the culmination of 10 years of work in assisting the university in the implementation of other veteran-related programs.

The first of these was the reestablishment of the USD Veterans Club in 2004, which helped veterans to increase their on-campus visibility.

Further advances were made when Dean was installed in his current position less than two years ago.

"In my office, students come in, and if they're eligible for benefits I help them along to file applications, to fill out the necessary paperwork, to get the information that they need in order to get their GI Bill benefits rolling," he said. "I'm the first person they need to see if they have any military affiliation, and I'll point them where they need to go, or figure out how many of their services I can offer."

Justin Smith, project director for the Fides Grant, said Dean's role is a big one.

"Before, there would be just somebody in the registrar's office would handle veterans' benefits, and every year or two, whoever did it would change. So there was very little consistency," Smith said. "When we got (Dean) into that job … that was a huge success on campus.

"We didn't even realize what a big deal it was at the time. But once that happened, the campus as a whole now had somebody to go to with veterans' things," he said. "Before, sometimes a veteran's issue would end up at the dean's office, the registrar's office or ROTC, or in the veterans club's hands."

Dean agreed, adding, "There were some procedures in place when soldiers were being deployed, making sure that they were able to drop their classes without penalty, or have the option of getting a refund. …

"They might have been on the books, but nobody knew about them or how to use them, so it was a learning process," he said.

USD's Soldiers, Veterans and Dependants Committee is another way the school has kept a tab on the student veterans' needs.

"All the movers and shakers on campus have a role in the committee," Dean said. "When we talk about veterans issues, we want to know how it relates to your particular part of campus, so if we're talking about rolling out a program for benefits, we want to see how that affects academic services, we want to see how it affects financial aid in the business office.

"So, those people are all part of the committee to make sure that there's not just one office trying to implement new programs without seeing every possible scenario," he said.

The committee has been "a huge success," Smith said.

"Veterans' issues can be brought up in an open forum among people who can make changes," he said. "Before, an issue might be brought up to a different department … but they can only handle certain things to a certain degree.

"I don't think we ever had an opposition to do what we wanted to do. Nobody was against veterans," Smith said. "People just didn't know, and there weren't procedures in place to make things happen."

To help other schools through their own issues relating to student veterans, Smith, Gage and Dean, along with Dr. Bruce Kelley, Ernetta Fox and Holly Wheeler, have collaborated on the book, "Preparing Your Campus for Student Veterans' Success," which is due out next year.

"We're really proud of being able to document some of the process and help other campuses move forward and overcome some of the challenges with (fewer) speed bumps," Smith said. "Any time you do something the first time, you're feeling your way through it because you're doing a brand new thing."

With the opening of the resource center, it should be even easier to coordinate the various programs and investigate potential issues.

"It's meant to be a one-stop shop," Dean said.

"Our program serves as a bridge between cultural understanding about the military culture and campus culture," Smith added. "They're very different. The military culture is very hierarchical, people know where everything is and can find it very easily, and on campus it's more diffuse."

"Sometimes troops just want to have that military structure on a campus, as well," Dean said.

For more information about the USD Student Veterans Resource Center, contact the Veterans Services Office at (605) 677-8833 or veterans@usd.edu or visit www.usd.edu/veterans.

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