Once the weapons have been put away and the dog tags have been hung up, the process of deactivating into civilian life can be a challenging transition for veterans. Adding in the stress of homework, research papers, group projects and final exams can mean an even greater level of frustration and struggles.
Following nine years of military service in the Army, including a year deployed in Iraq, Joseph Chang ’08 (B.S. human services) found himself at Cal State Fullerton picking up his education where he left off. “I came back to school, and I realized there were no adequate support services for veterans,” Chang said. “I decided to start something through a grassroots movement. I recruited four fellow veterans and we started meeting on campus on Tuesdays at lunch. I started buying pizza to recruit more, and that’s how we started our own support group.”
As these efforts grew, Chang founded the Student Veterans Association in spring 2008, becoming its first president. Following the organization’s first Veterans’ Appreciation Night, the university determined that a full-time coordinator was needed. Chang applied and was hired to start CSUF’s Veterans Student Services. Its goal is to lend personalized support to student veterans, aiding them in the transition back to school with guidance, support services and resources – but it also provides veterans with camaraderie. Veterans Student Services works closely with the association on events and outreach.
Chang’s office serves more than 400 known student veterans on campus. When applying to CSUF, students may indicate that they are veterans. Chang receives this information and sends out emails inviting them to the organization’s events. He said many veterans do not respond, and some purposely do not check the box. “They are driven with an independent mindset – a warrior-like mindset that hinders them from utilizing all of the available, wonderful resources,” he said. “Because seeking assistance is perceived as a sign of weakness.”
“I got an email from Joseph and it was basically an invitation to hang out with fellow veterans,” recalled Jim Hodgson ’12 (M.A. public administration), the 2011 association president. “Meeting those other veterans was helpful. You have people going through the same things as you. Some people are maybe a year or two ahead of me at the university and can help me through the process.”
Hodgson, a former Army captain who went to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, said the association makes many great contributions to the veterans’ community. “We sent about 200 boxes of care packages to service members in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. We had some excess, so we donated about 500 pounds of items to a local nonprofit organization called Veterans First,” he said. “They focus directly on homeless veterans and their families to help them get back on their feet, transition back into the workforce and a more stable life.”
Frank Ramos ’12 (M.A. anthropology), who works as the association’s secretary, specifically chose to attend CSUF for its veterans’ services after serving almost six years in the military.
“The transition from military to school is more detailed than most people would suspect,” Ramos said. “One of the biggest difficulties is that universities, private institutions and technical schools don’t understand what type of transition assistance they need to offer … My first choice, Cal State Fullerton, was actually [due to] the fact that they had a veterans assistance program in place,” he added. “CSUF has a Veterans Services office that you’re not going to find at many universities out there.”
Along with difficulties returning to school, Ramos explained that veterans sometimes face criticism in universities for having served in the military. “There are a lot of claims about people embodying a veteran as being a part of the system that they’re trying to fight against, part of the system that they see as being oppressive,” he said. “The majority of veterans are non-confrontational. They understand that people have a right to protest, that people have a right to speak their mind.”
Because veterans can be much older than “traditional” students who enter the university right after high school, they often feel like outsiders in the community. “We don’t rush frats,” Ramos, 30, noted.
Catherine Ward ’10 (B.S. human services-mental health) assists Chang in the Veterans Student Services office while studying in CSUF’s master’s degree program in counseling. “This is a group of individuals who have served our country and their communities in ways that no one else has. It is service that should be esteemed and valued,” Ward said. “I think we have an obligation to serve them, because they have served us.”
Ward began working with Veterans Student Services as an intern, and was hired with the help of a Center of Excellence for Veterans Student Success grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The three-year grant totaled $318,000 and helped hire tutors and develop the service’s programs, especially those focusing on female veterans – a population often overlooked, Ward said.
Among Chang’s goals is to increase the number of scholarships offered for veterans. Their first scholarships were launched with $2,000 in donations made by three CSUF alumni veterans. “Why would they do that? They appreciated what they had received so much that they wanted to give back,” he said. “That became the seed of the annual Veterans Scholarship for Success Award.”
While Chang and Ward agree that the grant is wonderful, they still must find funding for Veterans Student Services, which is housed in CSUF’s WoMen’s Center. “We hope to have a space that is not separate from our roots in the WoMen’s Center, but that is just expanded,” Ward said. “The numbers are going to require it, and our veterans need a place that they can call their own.”
Helping people is the main priority of both the service office and the student association. “That’s what’s important,” Ramos said. “If we can help someone get on their feet, get through that class, even help someone get in the university, the biggest goal is helping them achieve their own goals.”
“We have a lot of work still to do. We want to reach more of our student veterans,” added Ward. “As a society we are still struggling to meet the needs of our Vietnam veterans. I do not want to be in this position in 20 or 30 years, struggling to meet the needs of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I hope that as a society we will do better and do right by them.”