As a veteran returning from service, the transition can be difficult. The uncertainty of what lies ahead, as well as what options are available can be daunting. For veterans returning to school, not only do they face the same uncertainties, but they are also stepping into a far different role than a soldier, sailor, airmen or marine. They are becoming students once again. However, their time in school does not have to be spent alone. For student veterans at Hodges University, the Dr. Peter Thomas Veterans Services Center (VSC) offers a variety of services to help ease the difficulty of transitioning and make life as a student and civilian much easier.
“One of the biggest challenges our student veterans face is finding a sense of belonging and purpose,” said Christine Manson, director of Hodges’ VSC. “Many of them miss the camaraderie they had while in the service, and they are just trying to figure out their next step.”
The mission of the VSC is to provide a welcoming and informative environment where student veterans and dependents receive support for funding their education and adjusting to student and civilian life. Manson and her staff, which includes Leticia Pizzaro Padilla, manager of the VSC, as well as three Veterans Association (VA) work-study students, provide personalized service to each individual who visits the VSC. Through events and resources, the VSC is able to accomplish its mission of serving student veterans such as Edward Davis, who is also a VSC work-study. “[The VSC] helped with my transition by keeping me updated on events to attend. Meeting with other veterans was important to me because it gave me a group of people to communicate with who can relate to what I’d been through in my seven years in the Army,” Davis said.
In 2016, Hodges received two recognitions for its commitment to student veterans. The university was designated a 2016 Military Friendly School, and it was named to the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2016.
“At the VSC, we offer three types of services: educating students on their Veterans Administration (VA) benefits, resources and referrals, and a professional mentorship program,” Manson said.
Educating Students on VA Benefits
When students arrive in the VSC, many are unsure of their available benefits. Staff members assist students in the process of applying, transferring and monitoring benefits. Student veterans who qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100 percent benefit level receive $21,970.46 per year for schooling. “The VSC helped me have a smooth transition from the military to civilian life by helping me apply for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I was stationed in Korea when I first started working with the VSC to get my benefits started. Once I got out of the Army, I didn’t have to waste any time before I started school because the VSC had all my school benefits ready to go,” said Davis. In addition, Hodges is a participant in the Yellow Ribbon Program, which increases the tuition and fees benefit to just under $28,000 per academic year. Hodges also contributes up to $3,000, and the VA will match whatever we contribute to tuition and fees.
“Hodges also offers a tuition discount of $100 off per credit hour for veterans who are not eligible for VA education benefits or additional tuition discounts. The level of educational benefit eligibility is based on the amount of time spent in the service. It falls between 40 percent and 100 percent,” Manson explained.
As well as tuition and fees, student veterans who qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill may receive a monthly housing allowance, which is determined by the percentage of benefit level, course type and rate of pursuit. “Students who have 100 percent Post-9/11 benefits and attend classes on campus full time receive $1,692 per month for their housing allowance. Online students attending full time with the same percentage of benefits receive $805.50 for their monthly allowance,” said Manson.
Resources and Referrals
Apart from educational assistance, VSC staff work with student veterans dealing with transitional issues such as finances, mental health and job information. Partnering with internal and external organizations within the community, VSC staff is able to point students in the right direction when they are seeking help.
“We work very closely with Hodges staff, including Dr. Marcia Turner, our dean of students, and Jama Thurman, our career services manager,” she said. From assisting with resumes to connecting student veterans with job opportunities, Hodges’ Career Services provides unlimited resources to put students on a path to career success.
“I have a list of students and alumni looking for jobs, and whenever I receive a job that meets their qualifications, I send them an email with the job information. So, when I hear about jobs for veterans, I look through my active job list and send the announcement to all the veterans I know who are seeking employment,” said Thurman.
One example of how impactful Thurman’s efforts can be to students is seen in Hodges alumnus Allen Franklin. “I applied 37 times to the Lee County School District without a single interview. She took the initiative to make contact with me in order to obtain a resume and to evaluate my goals for a career pertaining to my BSM. After a few minor adjustments, Jama worked tirelessly to ensure I was actively searching for employment to satisfy my needs,” Franklin explained. In February 2016, after receiving an email from Thurman about a position with the Social Security Administration, he applied and accepted the position two months later.
In addition to on-campus resources, the VSC works with outside agencies to assist Hodges’ student veterans. One of these agencies is the local Vet Center. With locations in Fort Myers and Naples, the Vet Center is a valuable resource for veterans and their dependents.
“Due to so many of our student veterans working to find their sense of belonging, the Vet Center can play an integral part in helping a transitioning veteran,” Manson explained. Providing physical locations for veterans and their dependents to visit, these Vet Centers also go mobile with a 34-foot RV, traveling to various locations to be of assistance.
In September and October 2016, Mobile Vet Centers visited the Fort Myers and Naples campuses to help veterans with their benefits, employment needs, counseling, suicide prevention referrals, PTSD and more. It is also worth noting all of the services provided are offered at no cost.
The newest program to be integrated into the VSC and its available resources is its mentorship program. “The mentorship program is the natural next step for these student veterans. It is a way to have an ally while in the pursuit of a new career,” Manson said.
Hodges’ VSC mentorship program allows individuals with a military background to serve as mentors to student veterans who may be experiencing a difficult time in transitioning from service to civilian life or simply want guidance and advice from a local professional. Due to the unique requirements and tailored skills an individual learns while in the service, it can be difficult to translate those to the civilian world. Manson explained, “Many people think it is easy to walk into a veteran-friendly business or organization and get a job, but it’s not that simple.”
The program also serves to provide the student with at least one individual who can help with networking and serve as a referral when applying for jobs.
In connecting a student with a veteran who has “made it,” it creates a sense of encouragement, allowing the student to connect with someone who understands the difficulties of transitioning. The program provides assurance to the participants that they are valued in the community and have a bright future ahead.
“In the beginning, the mentor and mentee need to commit to meeting on a regular basis; however, as with any mentorship program, the need to meet as often should decrease over time,” she said.
In addition to the many resources provided by the VSC, starting in winter 2017, student veterans will have the opportunity to become a certified peer support specialist. According to Manson, William Enslen, professor in the applied psychology program, will teach Adjustment from Deployment to Civilian Life and Becoming a Veteran Peer Specialist. Each course is two credit hours. The curriculum totals 40 clock hours, which is the required number of training hours to become a certified peer support specialist. Students are encouraged to contact the VSC to see if VA education benefits can be used toward these classes.
“We live in a true vet-friendly community, and we are fortunate to have so many organizations who support what we do and who want to help our student veterans,” said Manson.