When military veterans were asked what type of information they wanted from a school or university, the top answer wasn’t information about graduation rates or estimates regarding student loan debt. It wasn’t even information about what credits earned in the military would be accepted by the institution.
Those were important, of course. But according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office survey, 62 percent wanted information about veterans support services more than any other option.
That answer isn’t surprising to retired Gunnery Sgt. Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, interim director for Saint Leo University’s Veteran Student Services. As a student who also served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years, it makes perfect sense to him.
“That basically tells me that when these veterans come off of active duty, there’s a trust, a comfort level, in being able to speak with somebody who can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk,” Weiser said.
Having a department dedicated to their needs helps veterans transition from the structure of military life to the more self-directed schedule of a student.
That assistance can take many forms, Weiser said. The university can answer questions, help find scholarship opportunities, or simply provide a sounding board for their frustrations.
Just having a place to go can help Saint Leo’s veteran students adjust easier.
And there are plenty of students at the university who can use those services. At Saint Leo, 38 percent of the student body is active duty military or veterans, totaling around 3,500 students.
The vast majority of those students are not learning in Pasco County. For more than four decades, Saint Leo has taught on military bases and installations. They currently have 40 education centers around the country, including a dozen different military bases in the United States.
While the university’s relationship with the military stretches back for decades, the Veteran Student Services department is fairly new. Established in 2012, it’s the result of identifying ways to better assist its large veteran population, Weiser said, and was initiated by university president Arthur Kirk.
“He saw the need to establish a better relationship and better support for our veteran and active duty students,” he said.
That support includes a lot more than answering basic questions or maintaining a campus presence. The university has developed a free online course specifically for veterans and their families on how to make the transition from military to civilian life. It includes information on areas such as job interviewing and resume writing, networking, as well as identifying benefits and opportunities for spouses and other dependents.
The department also has its own financial resource for veterans where they can receive temporary assistance to help with financial obstacles to pursuing their educational goals. The Military Education Excellence fund provides gifts up to $500 to help pay for groceries, utilities or whatever expenses might occur.
This year, the fund has dispersed 32 gifts ranging from $160 to $500. They have another $26,000 in reserve to handle future requests.
The fund is donation-based, and Weiser said the department is trying a variety of methods to keep its coffers filled. One was the recent Mud Endeavor on Oct. 4 in Brooksville. The event, which features runners tackling a muddy obstacle course, is a tool different organizations can use to raise funds.
While Weiser isn’t sure how many people signed up to assist the department and how much money was raised quite yet, he believes it was only a modest total. Due to logistics, they only partnered with the event a few weeks before it occurred, so there was a lack of promotion and advertising.
Next year they plan to participate again, utilizing a longer lead-time to get the word out.
The feedback regarding the Veteran Student Services department has been excellent, Weiser said, both on campus and on the various bases where the university has a presence. He’s personally visited 21 of the 40 educational centers, and believes it’s important for students far from Saint Leo’s campus to see an actual person and feel like the department is in their corner and attending to their needs.
And they’re able to accomplish that by utilizing the strong bonds they all share, as well as their familiarity with the unique challenges and sacrifices active military and veteran students experience.
“I always preface this by saying I mean no disrespect to anybody with a clinical license or degree,” Weiser said. “But there’s a bond between veterans that no other modality or no other relationship can touch, particularly between combat veterans.”
Published October 22, 2014
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