Veteran Services ranked 27 in the Nation

By Katie Landeck

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After serving under Uncle Sam, veterans on a degree-seeking mission may want to march over to the University of Massachusetts. Recently, “Military Times” and “GI Jobs” ranked UMass among the top places for veterans to attend college.

“Military Times” ranked UMass No. 27 in the nation based on four categories. Scoring was out of five available stars, and the University received a rating of three and a half in the categories of financial assistance and academic flexibility, three stars for campus culture and a rating of four and a half for support services.

“This award is a fairly prestigious award as only 15 percent of schools receive it,” said Assistant Dean of Students Shawn McGuirk. “The rating tells me we are doing a good job of meeting the needs of veterans.”

“There is room for improvement, but we are doing a good job of meeting their needs academically and personally,” continued McGuirk.

In the past four years, significant changes have been made to UMass’ Department of Veteran Services. These efforts have been spear-headed by Judy Gagnon, coordinator of the Military Resource Communication Center.

“I have been working at UMass for 33 years,” said Gagnon. “But in 2006, I really became an advocate for veterans because veterans were asking for a liaison that can just focus on veterans. I spent a year researching, and then I started updating our services.”

The program is based on the programs of other universities with longstanding, mandated veterans’ programs. UMass’s program features a drop-in center, which is a place for veterans to talk, complete assignments and play video games with other veterans. The drop-in center is located in Whitmore 312.

“It is a place for them to come and feel welcome with their own population,” said Gagnon. “A lot of the veterans are older and have jobs and don’t relate to the incoming freshmen, the drop in center gives them a place to go.”

“It is also where the certification staff is located, because when you are in the military you can go to one place and get all of your answers. We are trying to replicate that here,” she added.

The University’s program also employs a staff instructed to act as advocates for veteran students, while also finding them resources and offering placement in an optional transition class. The class is designed to ease the transition from being a servicemen to a student.

“Many veterans are coming from combat zones and have trouble getting rid of the adrenaline or they miss it. They are going from one culture to another,” said Gagnon.

Additionally, the program is part of the federal Yellow Ribbon Program, a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. According to the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the “program allows institutions of higher learning … to voluntarily enter into an agreement with VA to fund tuition expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate.”

Gagnon, who has worked at UMass since the end of the Vietnam War, has seen a change in student attitudes as well as changes in the program.

“People have finally realized the veteran does not mean pro-war and does not mean republican,” said Gagnon. “After 9/11, there was a surge of patriotism that was felt and many people enlisted.”

She added, “The veterans come into the drop in center and they talk about politics, but there are as many right views as there are left. They just love the country, and students are starting to see that.”

Gagnon points to the UMass Dance for Troops as evidence of this, as it was sponsored by the University Programming Council. According to Gagnon, about 50 veterans went to this event.

Currently, there are about 300 certified veterans enrolled in the University, but McGuirk predicts that another 40 to 60 will be certified by the end of the school year. Last year, there were 324. According to Gagnon, most veterans take classes on campus and have recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, but some of them are taking online classes while serving in the combat zone or are older veterans.

This increase in veteran students has been seen all over the nation as a result of the Post- 9/11 GI Bill. The bill covers the cost of tuition and fees for individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate services after Sept. 11, 2001.

UMass is actively trying to recruit these veterans and improve its program.

“Moving from No. 27 will take a lot of time, resources and money,” said McGuirk. “And a lot of the programs ranked higher have been established for a long time and have done more networking, but we are proud of the work we have done and ready to do more.”

Katie Landeck can be reached at [email protected]