EDMOND — When James Willis enrolled as a freshman at the University of Central Oklahoma, he had questions.
Finding someone to
Willis, a U.S. Army veteran, is attending UCO on his educational benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. When he arrived at the school as a freshman, he was sent from one office to another looking for someone who could tell him where to go, what to do and what paperwork to fill out.
The experience was frustrating, he said.
“I went from one person to the next to the next,” he said.
Now, Willis is working to make sure other students such as him don't go through the same hassle. He is one of two student staffers at a new UCO office dedicated to helping student veterans navigate university life.
On the first floor of Nigh University Center, the office opened April 26. Primarily, the office serves as a liaison between student veterans and a range of university offices and other agencies that provide services, said Beth Adele, director of the
The idea, she said, is to give veterans a single place on campus to get answers for all their questions.
When students come to the office with problems or questions, staffers either find answers to those questions themselves or direct the student to the office that can help — ideally allowing them to avoid going from one office to the next looking for help.
In the past, Adele said, the university's Veterans Affairs office assisted student veterans with questions about financial aid. But no office existed to handle those students' academic, financial and social issues, she said.
For example, she said, student veterans often run into problems when their benefits don't come through before the beginning of the semester. In those cases, she said, the office can connect students with interest-free emergency loans that allow them to enroll in classes, buy a few books and keep bills paid until they receive their benefits.
Having an office on campus that deals solely with student veterans' issues is especially important because of a rising number of veterans on college campuses, Adele said. At UCO, 610 students receive VA benefits. Adele said she expects to see that number climb to the mid-700s next fall.
The jump is the result of a number of factors, Adele said, including an influx of veterans' dependents who now qualify for benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have worn on, more National Guard units have been affected, which also means more people are eligible for those benefits, Adele said.
At other schools
UCO's office isn't the only one of its kind. Oklahoma State University's veterans services office has existed for decades.
But Assistant Registrar Paula Barnes said the office has seen changes in how it deals with student veterans.
Increasingly, Barnes said, representatives are dealing not with the veterans themselves but with their parents. In those cases, she said, the incoming student generally is deployed overseas, and parents are making arrangements on his or her behalf.
More and more, she said, student veterans seem interested in taking full advantage of their benefits. She fields more questions today than in past years about how veterans benefits cover things such as housing, she said.
Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City opened a similar office last year. Loretta Hatchett, coordinator for veteran services at OSU-OKC, said university officials decided a dedicated office was necessary when the university's student veteran numbers doubled after the Post-9/11 GI Bill was
Example of need
The need for the office was made clear in recent months, said Cory Teschendorf, an incoming student at OSU-OKC and a Navy veteran. Teschendorf left the Navy last year to go to college. He hopes to return to the Navy later as an officer, he said. But those plans were nearly halted when a typo on a form tied up his benefits.
“I was about to give up on my schooling,” he said.
Teschendorf worked with Hatchett and David Risinger, OSU-OKC's director of Educational Talent Search, to file an appeal. Eventually, his benefits were reinstated, and he plans to start school in
Risinger said stories such as Teschendorf's are an example of why student veterans need extra assistance. Their veteran status generally means extra paperwork, extra levels of bureaucracy and extra headaches, he said. Often, he said, veterans don't know where to begin.
“They don't know the answers to the questions,” he said. “They don't even know the questions.”
Dealing with scars
To make matters more difficult, Risinger said, student veterans sometimes have physical or mental disabilities that stem from their time in the military. Those students may need to be handled differently, he said, whether it means walking them through lines or making special arrangements for students who find a classroom setting difficult.
Risinger understands those students' situations better than most: He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and returned with post-traumatic stress disorder issues, an experience he willingly discusses with students, he said.
“If they have to be in line, then I want to be there with them,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get these guys through.”