Campus services aid and assist student veterans
Jeff Ruh joined the Army at age 17 and spent eight years in the 82nd Airborne Division. As a soldier, he faced a lot of tough assignments, including being deployed to fight the Serbian genocide in Kosovo as a paratrooper in 1999-2000. But Ruh said one of the biggest challenges he’s faced was switching from soldier to student.
“For one thing the paperwork to apply for my state and federal GI benefits was more confusing and worse than anything I’d ever filled out before,” said Ruh, a 2010 UW-Eau Claire kinesiology graduate. “Plus you are coming from somewhere where they tell you what to do, but as a civilian you have to make every decision on your own.”
Ruh turned to Diane Stegner Roadt, UW-Eau Claire veterans services coordinator, and Bonnie Isaacson, UW-Eau Claire nontraditional student adviser, for help.
“I owe those women steak dinners for life,” Ruh said. “They made sure I filled out the right things in the right way and on time so I could get my bills paid and concentrate on school.”
Services to veterans like those provided by Roadt and Isaacson helped UW-Eau Claire earn first place in the UW-Extension’s Adult Friendly Institution Incentive Plan awards program. UW-Eau Claire was recognized for the services it provides to veterans, including creating a Veterans Center, reactivating the student Veterans Club and instituting a veteran-student orientation. As the winner, UW-Eau Claire will receive $10,000 to further its efforts for adult veteran students.
“There’s a lot we can do with that funding,” Isaacson said. “We could provide more programming, sponsor student veterans’ travel to regional conferences on veterans services or host a conference on veteran needs and services for the UW System. Those of us serving veterans just need to decide what will help the students most.”
Support for returning veterans
To help UW-Eau Claire assess and better meet the needs of veteran students, a UW-Eau Claire Veterans Advisory Committee was created in 2006 and formally recognized as a committee reporting to the provost in November 2008. The committee, co-chaired by Isaacson and Roadt, consists of staff from the offices providing veterans services and three veteran students. It meets several times a semester to talk about veteran students’ needs and concerns and make recommendations to the provost.
One committee initiative was the creation of a Veterans Center, which opened in 2009 and provides a place for veterans, enlisted students and ROTC students to meet, study and get advice. Ruh and David Jeske, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and junior business finance major at UW-Eau Claire, were involved in the establishment of the center, along with professor of mathematics and former associate dean of students Marc Goulet, Roadt, Isaacson and other administrators.
“The center is part of a support system for veterans,” Jeske said. “It’s a place where you can be with other people who have had similar experiences, talk, get advice and help each other. At 25 I find it hard to relate to students fresh out of high school.”
The center offers programming relevant to veterans’ needs, and many university service units hold office hours there.
Veterans also have access to a social worker with the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, who is available to link them to the VA center medical staff through a computer telehealth system. This allows veteran students who have disabilities or mental health issues to talk to their doctors using a computer without having to drive to the center in Minneapolis. Jeske, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of three tours of duty in Iraq, said the telehealth network has been extremely valuable to him.
“It helps a lot not to have to go miles and miles to talk to my doctor and to be able to talk to him when I need to,” Jeske said.
A veterans support group also is offered each semester by the university’s Counseling Services, and a veteran employment representative of the Department of Workforce Development holds office hours in the center, assisting veterans with career decisions and finding work.
Veterans also benefit from assistance provided by UW-Eau Claire’s office of Services for Students with Disabilities. Jeske’s PTSD made it difficult for him to take exams. When he’d be in the classroom taking a test he’d go into a hypervigilant mode like he did when on patrol in Iraq.
“I’d hear every pencil scratch, every cough or paper crinkle; I couldn’t focus on the test,” Jeske said.
Services for Students with Disabilities arranged for Jeske to take tests in a room alone, which dramatically improved his performance on exams.
Fulfilling a mission of service
UW-Eau Claire’s Veterans Club, of which Jeske is president, provides another way for veteran students to meet, get to know each other and provide service to the community. The club held a fundraising event this spring for Homes for Heroes, an organization that helps remodel or build accessible homes for disabled veterans. Club members also visited Putnam Heights Elementary School, where they helped with a science project and talked to the children about their service to the country.
Sophomore health care administration major Mee Yang, who served six years in the U.S. Air Force, received assistance from UW-Eau Claire’s Multicultural Affairs and Financial Aid offices, and she, in turn, has found a way to give back.
Yang, who is Hmong, said being ethnically and culturally diverse created some additional challenges for her.
“My family and many of my relatives and friends had a hard time accepting me entering the Air Force,” Yang said. “In Hmong culture joining the armed services is seen as a male career. They didn’t understand why I would want to join the Air Force or why I would want to go to school now.”
Yang, who was deployed for six months in Qatar, has become a mentor to young girls in the Hmong community and will serve as a mentor to veteran students beginning this fall. The new mentoring program, overseen by Roadt, Isaacson and Goulet, will link new veteran students to upperclass veterans, who can help the new students find their way around campus, answer their questions and refer them to people who can help them solve problems.
Fortifying the troops
Enlisted personnel also make use of UW-Eau Claire’s many services for veterans. Senior mathematics major Heidi Lee, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, needed help applying for Wisconsin veterans services benefits when she returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. She enlisted in Wisconsin but was deployed from Ohio, and there was confusion about from which state she should receive benefits. She appreciated the help from the university while she was readjusting to being stateside, coping with a divorce and becoming reacquainted with her family and friends.
“Coming home you expect things to be the same, for people to be the same,” Lee said. “But it’s not like that. It’s like you missed a whole year of your life.”
Lee said her unit is up for deployment again in December 2010, and she said she hopes it doesn’t disrupt her plans to graduate in 2012.
Should she need assistance, the Dean of Students Office helps administer military (including deployment) leaves. The office also can be of help when students need time off to train with the National Guard or a military unit.
Improvements in the services provided to veterans continue to be a priority for UW-Eau Claire. Despite ongoing budget constraints, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich announced in May that a new coordinator for veterans services position will be created to enhance the university’s ability to assist students who have served in the military.
“Those students returning from active duty often experience unique challenges as they transition back to civilian life, and the university is committed to helping them navigate that transition so they can focus on academic success,” Levin-Stankevich said. “Enlisted and ROTC students also may need help balancing the many roles they fulfill, including family obligations.”
Roadt said she is glad to see the administration doing so much to support veterans.
“As part of the Veterans Services office and as a member of the community, I’m proud of what UW-Eau Claire is doing to help these students,” Roadt said. “I think we need to be aware of what veterans have done for us and return the favor. I think we owe them a lot.”
A show of support
The UW-Eau Claire Foundation provided funding to get the Veterans Center up and running. If you’re interested in further assisting the center in its efforts, visit www.uwec.edu/fndn/veteran or call the Foundation at 715-836-5630 (or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask for information about its Veterans Center Fund.
Photos by Rick Mickelson and Bill Hoepner