Of the 34,000 students expected to start classes Aug. 27 at Texas State University, roughly 2,400 will be veterans and dependents of veterans.
The veterans bring with them many of the same challenges facing all students—adjusting to a new environment and schedule, for instance—but they also face a more complex transition than that of a recent high school graduate.
Professor of social work Katherine Selber, a founding member of the Veterans Advisory Council and the faculty sponsor for the Veterans Alliance of Texas State, said the university works to provide a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for veterans.
“There’s a lot of stress that they deal with. They’ve been out of academia for many years—many of them have been out of high school for somewhere between four and eight years,” Selber said. “[Some] may be having mild traumatic brain injury, maybe they had some sort of improvised explosive device event. [They] could have some cognitive fuzziness and slowness, and so that makes them need certain tutoring.”
She said the veterans initiative includes academic support services, health and behavioral services, and career and employment services.
“We try to kind of put those pieces together and come up with resources on campus and off campus that can address some of their concerns,” she said.
Among the recognitions Texas State has received for its efforts is being named a “veteran-friendly school” for three consecutive years by GI Jobs magazine and being ranked 13th in the nation among the best four-year colleges and universities for veterans in Military Times EDGE magazine. The only other Texas school on the Military Times list is Texas A&M University.
Jude Prather, Hays County veterans services officer, said Texas State is well-positioned to see its student-veteran population continue to grow, partly because of its location between San Antonio—which has several military bases—and Fort Hood, the nation’s largest Army base, located in Killeen.
“That also carries with it positive economic impacts on communities. Veterans carry with them benefits, and some of those benefits are monthly cash benefits, like the GI Bill,” Prather said. “That’s money that’s spent at H-E-B; that’s money that’s spent in the local economy.”
As U.S. forces are reduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, more veterans are returning home. According to the Texas Veterans Commission, there were 11,086 veterans in Hays County in 2011. They spent slightly more than $69 million in benefits, up from more than $49 million in 2010.
Businesses that employ veterans can also see an economic benefit in the form of a Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a federal program that provides a tax break of $2,400–$9,600 per veteran hired.
Selber said that like many of her colleagues, her connection to veterans’ affairs is personal. Her son, Air Force Capt. Will Selber, is in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment.
She said the stress of transition to a civilian life and a return to families and communities can be compounded by the stress of entering a university environment.
The three-pronged approach employed at Texas State aims to provide a diversity of options to help veterans deal with those multiple stresses.
Academic support includes the tutoring services all students have access to as well as writing workshops, special recognition at graduation and a mentoring program being launched this fall.
“What we’ve done is identified faculty and staff who are veterans and who are interested in being a mentor. Our approach is going to be one of asking veterans if they would like a mentor [and] pairing them up, and also providing veterans with a list of faculty and staff [mentors].”
Health services include a meditation group, outreach by social work interns and a partnership with the Austin Vet Center.
Career services have focused on resume-writing workshops, golf clinics for networking and business etiquette instruction.
As with all the initiatives and support services the university offers, Selber said, the pilot mentoring program is designed to help veterans feel connected and understood by faculty, staff and their fellow students.
“Our veterans, the way they made it through is to have each other’s backs. When they’re on campus, it’s really important that we recreate that so they can have a strong support system on campus of other veterans.”
Return to ‘real world’
Prather returned from combat in fall 2009 with less than a week between his final mission and his return to San Marcos.
“The transition, it can be difficult. When you go there, you go downrange, it seems so unreal because it’s so much not like home. And then when you’re there long enough, home seems more and more distant,” Prather said. “By the time you come home, especially when you look around and I see this beautiful Square, this feels like Disneyland, and that feels like the real world.”
Prather, who is also a San Marcos city councilman, said breaking the mindset of “mission-focused” tasks is among the difficulties veterans face when they return to civilian life.
“There was no Tuesday or Sunday, it was just every day. And every day revolved around the mission. Your whole life revolves around that,” he said. “You come back home and there is no mission for that day. If you don’t wake up and go to class, guess what? Your sergeant’s not there to yell at you that you missed class.”
A different lifestyle
The mission of all veterans services offices is to help those returning to receive benefits to which they’re entitled, including education services. Prather said that entails much more than just providing the correct paperwork.
“[We] make them feel normal about talking about very abnormal things,” he said. “Given my character of service, I can be like, ‘Hey, brother or sister, I was an infantryman, too. I manned a gun turret just like you. I know what it’s like making that transition. Let me show how we can do this to help you out.’”
Prather said he emphasizes to veterans who come to his office that the experiences gained during combat can be used as a foundation for their educational careers.
“The best way to honor the legacy of those that didn’t come back is to come back home and live a great life. Use those benefits to live that great life,” he said. “And also use the experiences you saw down there not as something that’s going to drag you down for the rest of your life but as strength and character, knowing that things could be much more difficult.”