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Guest Column

Enhance ‘veteran-friendly’ campus concept

President Barack Obama’s call for Americans to ensure better employment opportunities for veterans came at an ideal time for those of us in the nation’s largest system of four-year universities.

As he was delivering his speech Aug. 30 at the 93rd annual Conference of the American Legion, representatives from the California State University system were preparing for an Aug. 31 meeting with military leaders at Camp Pendleton. Our focus was helping veterans not only to attend college, but also to succeed on campus and obtain jobs after graduation.

With more service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, these efforts will only grow in importance, both for the nation’s economy and for the veterans themselves. And the California State University system is ready to answer the president’s call.

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Of the CSU’s more than 400,000 students, nearly 12,000 are veterans, active-duty personnel or their dependents, and we recently completed an in-depth study of what it takes to help this group succeed. The study examined every aspect of veterans education, including the college admissions process, job preparation and all factors in between that affect life and learning.

We found that there are key distinctions that push campuses beyond “veteran-friendly” and instead make them “veteran success-oriented.” After all, higher education — at its core — is about success, and veterans have every right to expect that they will succeed during and after college.

The study addresses the notion that victory cannot be declared the moment when veterans walk into class. No longer is it sufficient to only have policies that encourage veteran enrollment. To foster success, it takes a campuswide, team approach that encompasses every sector of a college or university.

You don’t have to spend much time on a campus to realize that programs for typical college students aren’t always suitable to those who have served overseas. Veterans may have specialized needs or interests in many areas — and institutions of higher learning must respond accordingly.

This means having a campus office or unit devoted solely to veterans. It means creating a designated space for veterans that can be used for confidential counseling, social interaction and study. And it means academic and student programs that help veterans navigate the classes and requirements that will get them to graduation day sooner and prepare them for the best jobs.

We also must appreciate the difficulties many student veterans encounter in returning to civilian life and provide appropriately trained medical and mental health professionals. Establishing strong peer organizations is a way to create an invaluable support network right on campus.

I hope all veterans considering a college education will seek out campuses with this level of commitment.

There is a young man at California State University, Sacramento who is an inspiring example of how such efforts can create success. Austin Sihoe served in the Navy aboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which was forward-deployed to Japan. Our university had a single point of contact he could call for assistance with being admitted to college. That individual was a Sacramento State graduate and Air Force veteran, which made the process much smoother. Getting transcripts together and understanding the intricacies of veterans benefits is no easy task while serving across the globe.

After Austin arrived, he was hired at our campus’ Veterans Success Center — helping veterans with precisely the same concerns he once had. He also became involved in our Student Veterans Organization, working to reach out to fellow student veterans so they would know that they had support on campus.

And when it came time to pitch an idea for a veterans scholarship program to our fundraising board, Austin was there again, telling his story and planting the seeds of a campaign that is providing funds to veterans and their families.

Now Austin has built an impressive civilian resume to go along with his military service and his education.

Those of us in higher education hope to see more success stories like Austin’s in the years to come.

Since leaving the Air Force in 1967, I’ve spent my entire career in higher education, and it is changing almost as rapidly as the needs of veterans. At Camp Pendleton, we discussed how the competition for students is fiercer than ever. As such, we must continue to implement changes to foster success, whether that involves improving online learning to aid overseas personnel overseas or doing a better job of accounting for military training within our curricula.

Through all these efforts, we can refocus on the important issue of veterans education. We can ensure that support goes to the areas it is needed most, and we can be the life-changing resource that our men and women in uniform deserve.

Alexander Gonzalez is president of California State University, Sacramento. He served in the Air Force and used the GI Bill to attend college.

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