UMass Boston Welcomes Home Veterans, Addresses Veterans’ Issues
November 24, 2009
“People think that you get home the day you step off the plane. That’s not always true,” said Paul Camacho, assistant director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, alluding to the profound emotional impact that combat experiences can have, and the sharp contrast that college life can present.
“The transition is not always easy. It can take a long time to come home,” he said.
Camacho, who served as a sergeant with the 9th Marines in Vietnam, joined other veterans and veterans’ service providers to share experiences, information, and ideas during an afternoon dedicated to student veterans’ issues held in the Ryan Lounge on November 10.
Organized by a committee led by ADA Compliance Officer Carol DeSouza, and including staff from throughout campus—including Martha Kelly from Contracts and Compliance, who herself served in Iraq—the afternoon covered a range of topics.
The first session, dedicated to untangling the complexities of the new GI Bill and other benefits available to veterans, featured Barry Brodsky, director of the UMass Boston chapter of Veterans Upward Bound, and Gus St. Silva, director of the UMass Boston Office of Veterans’ Affairs. They were joined by Ronald LeBlanc and Maura Squire from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Greg Stewart from Senator John Kerry’s office. Joiner Center director Kevin Bowen also joined the conversation.
Bottom line: veterans who want to return to the classroom have a variety of options. It’s not a simple, one-size-fits-all solution, and the choices and paperwork can be very confusing.
“Everybody has their own situation. It’s important that we have people who can evaluate veterans and offer specific advice on a case by case basis,” said Squire.
At UMass Boston, those students are able to meet with Gus St. Silva, who presented throughout the day on the services that are available to UMass Boston’s population of roughly 500 student veterans, 350 of them considered “post-911” veterans.
“It’s hard to find a school official as knowledgeable as Gus. He’s a great resource,” said Charles Pace, Department of Veterans Affairs education liaison.
In addition to the students served through St. Silva’s office, 120 others are served each year by the Veterans Upward Bound program directed by Barry Brodsky. According to Brodsky, each year, approximately 20 Upward Bound graduates enroll at UMass Boston the next semester, while the majority attend community college first.
Following the GI Bill presentation, the program shifted to the topic of disability services and included a student-veteran panel, a presentation by St. Silva on the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon programs, and a presentation by Jorja Waybrant, a disability services provider from Dickinson College, who led the final panel of disability services providers, Catherine Axe, Brown University, Rory Stein, Harvard Extension School and Allen Ford from Rochester Institute of Technology, National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Organized by UMass Boston’s ADA compliance officer Carol DeSouza, the afternoon’s activities were sponsored by the Association on Higher Education and Disability’s regional group, known as AHEAD New England. In the audience, 57 disability service providers represented 37 higher education institutions sought to understand more about how to better serve student veterans with disabilities.
“These veterans are not returning with the same disabilities as veterans of the past,” said DeSouza. “We in higher education must be ready for the appropriate services throughout our campuses --- in disability service offices, in Counseling Centers, in Veterans Affairs offices, in academic support. We must be ready to support these servicemen and women who present incredible leadership skills while at the same time have unique needs to succeed.”
The student veterans panel included Air Force veteran and Veterans’ Upward Bound graduate David Lynn and Navy veteran and Student Veterans Center Director Caroline Necheles speaking about the challenges each faced coping with disabilities or limitations and overcoming them in a university setting. They discussed topics facing many veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, visual and mobility impairments as well as learning disabilities.
Lynn, who is blind, doesn’t consider himself disabled.
“I don’t need look at myself as disabled. I have limitations that require me to figure out ways to do things and be able to incorporate myself into school activities,” said Lynn, who added that disability services providers in the room should address each veteran individually and avoid labels, which can be limiting.
“Before I look at myself as a veteran and a blind person, I’m a person. Just because I’m blind [doesn’t mean] I have the same requirements as another blind person,” said Lynn. “Sometimes the box of what a blind person is doesn’t fit my needs. Sometimes you have to look outside the box to be able to give people what they need to succeed. Hopefully, I’m preaching to the choir on this.”
All of the student panelists described the ways that each was able to work to function well within the university setting, either using formal support resources through the Ross Center for Students with Disabilities and informally, through student peer networks and one-on-one meetings with supportive faculty.
In her presentation on services provided to veterans in Pennsylvania, Jorja Waybrant described various models and programs that are possible, cautioning that what works for larger schools might not work in a smaller institution. She stressed the importance of veteran support programs and the intelligent exploration of what might work on a given campus.
“Student veterans are the fastest growing subgroup on college campus,” said Waybrant, “They are also not a homogeneous group.”
Listing dozens of differences that exist—from marital status, to age, to service branch, disability type and the like—Waybrant stressed the need to recognize this diversity and aim to understand which services are most appropriate for each institution, and, ultimately, each student seeking assistance.
“I think it’s really an important to come together to talk about issues that concern veterans,” said Rory Stein from Harvard Extension. “They are a particularly rewarding demographic of students to work with, given that they’ve given that they’ve made an enormous sacrifice. It’s just a great feeling to give back to them.”
That evening, UMass Boston held its annual “Veterans’ Welcome Home” reception and dinner for student veterans, Gold Star Mothers, and friends, featuring Charles Desmond, Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education as keynote speaker.
After the dinner, Necheles reflected, “As a veteran I know that on Veterans Day I get text messages and Facebook messages from all the people who know I served, thanking me for my choice in life. To see it displayed on campus was a pleasure I hope is repeated next year, on a bigger scale.”