New UMass program seeks to aid returning student veterans

By Niina Heikkinen

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This semester, student veterans at the University of Massachusetts have a new resource on campus to help them navigate their return to college life after military service. In response to the requests of student veterans, a new office of Veterans Affairs has opened in the Whitmore Administrative building that is better equipped to serve the needs of a growing number of soldiers who are deciding to return to school after active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Coordinator for the program Judy Gagnon described the office as a combination resource, referral and drop-in center for UMass veterans, with an emphasis on building and supporting the veteran community on campus.

Veteran Affairs works closely with local veteran affairs offices and offers referrals to counseling services, Gagnon said. A certifying agent is also available to provide information and approve benefits that veterans are eligible for under the GI Bill, she added.

In order to help ease the transition back into civilian life, Veteran Affairs has developed a new one-credit seminar course, OASIS, for the spring semester. The course, which is taught by a veteran, is designed to facilitate peer mentoring among veterans.

The GI Bill, which went into effect last August, provides education benefits for veterans with active service after 9/11.

“We work a lot with non-profits, VAs, any kind of questions they have if we don’t have the answers to them, we’ll find them,” Gagnon said.

Currently, around 350 UMass students are receiving education benefits under the GI Bill, according to the University’s GI Bill certifying agent Jeff Axton. About 50 of those students are receiving referred benefits from a parent or spouse who had served in the military.

Gagnon said that there are already significantly more veterans at UMass than last year, and that number is expected to increase by as much as 30 percent each year as more soldiers return from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website, 4,942 benefit payments have been processed to date nationwide under the new bill.

Not only has the GI Bill increased the demand for Veteran Services on campus, it has also highlighted the need to increase awareness among students and faculty about the veteran presence on campus, Gagnon said.

“I actually got arguments from people saying there weren’t any vets on campus, now I think there is a real acceptance [of veterans],” Gagnon said.

She also added that her office hosted a social at the University Club for faculty and staff last Thursday Nov. 12, in order to raise awareness about and increase sensitivity towards student veterans.

Although both Axton and Gagnon said that they had recognized improvement in the perception of veterans on campus, they still have student veterans coming into their offices talking about how they’ve been ignored by fellow students after revealing that they had served in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

“Some people don’t want others to know that they are veterans because of the response that they get,” Axton said.

According to Gagnon, there are already positive signs that the campus community is becoming more supportive of its veterans.

“There is a real sense of pride finally, which is very difficult on a very liberal campus,” Gagnon said.  “People don’t understand the difference between war and the warriors… [Now] we’re treating these veterans [from Afghanistan and Iraq] a lot like World War II vets.”

“We want to be a veteran friendly campus. That is my goal,” she added.

Niina Heikkinen can be reached at [email protected]