By Shiraz Karaa, associate director, Counseling and Psychological Services, Clayton State University
As the nation welcomes the return of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who will take advantage of the expanded GI Bill education benefits, Clayton State University, among other post-secondary education institutions, will see and has seen an increasing number of soldiers who are pursuing higher education opportunities.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, the Clayton State Campus will be bustling with activities honoring our student veterans. However, only a little over a year ago, few veterans on this campus would have expected institutional recognition for their service and most of the campus community was unaware of the unique needs of those who served this country and who now deserve to be served.
The manner in which student veterans services initiatives began at Clayton State is unique to Clayton State. The beginning of a supportive network for student veterans began to take shape at the first Veterans Coffee Social, held in a classroom on Feb. 6, 2008. Working with student veterans who sought services at the campus counseling center, I recognized the need for a comprehensive support program for these students whose academic, social, and psychological needs differ from those of other college students.
How would I reach out to the hundreds of veterans walking around the campus to let them know that support is available to them right here and now? The answer was to have a coffee social inclusive of students, faculty, staff, and community resources, such as the Vet Center that became part of the referral and support network for many of our student veterans. Ten participants who consistently showed up at the first coffee socials to find camaraderie in this group of fellow veterans formed a committed group that became the Clayton State Student Veterans Association (SVA).
Serving as the SVA advisor fueled my commitment to expanding services for student veterans. The task of communicating the veterans’ needs to the university officials who could influence policy while at the same time continuing to provide outreach and support to this unique student population felt like an overwhelming but very important and invigorating venture.
Next came developing the vision of a comprehensive and sustainable veterans’ assistance and outreach program that fosters a smooth transition for student veterans and their families into higher education. The goals within the framework of this vision provided a clear framework for establishing a Veterans Success Program (VSP) at the University. In July 2008, the Veterans Task Force (VTF) committee was formed of a dynamic group of cross-campus personnel and a number of student veterans. This committee is currently developing strategies for aligning the existing needs of student veterans with campus resources including a review of how academic credit is awarded for military service, the launching of a veterans online newsletter on this coming Veterans Day, and developing a faculty and staff training program that promotes understanding of veterans’ specific issues – to name a few items. The task of communicating the veterans’ needs to the university officials via a formal report to the President’s Cabinet will be another important committee function.
We now come full circle to the opening line of this article. The Clayton State campus will be bustling with activities honoring our student veterans on Veterans Day this year. The SVA is spearheading a two-day activities program in collaboration with ROTC, Orientation and New Student Programs, and Alpha Kappa Lambda in honoring veterans on their special day. Local VFW groups will be invited as honored guests. The variety of activities will feature the posting of colors by the ROTC Color Guard and a war memorabilia display of faculty and staff who are veterans. A reception open to the public will follow the posting of colors.
The desire to serve those who served is becoming more evident, as the campus community joins together in making the veterans and their families feel welcome and supported. My hope is that within a year, Clayton State University will lead the way in becoming a veteran-friendly campus.