By Brianna Rodriguez
Anyone who enters the Military and Veterans Success Center is immediately greeted with the phrase “welcome home.”
Many students who qualify for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits have experienced the hardships of deployment. Veterans spend months dedicating their time away from their family to serve. Spouses and dependents experience the absence of their loved ones temporarily or permanently due to deployment.
“The greeting of welcome home is literal to me. Whenever I enter the door, I feel like I am among family because of the atmosphere and the people,” said Jacquita James, a senior psychology major.
“I feel a sense of overwhelming joy when I come in here. I am always greeted with a smile. This place was the deciding factor for me to come to school full time,” she said.
This is why the Military and Veterans Success Center aims to be as warm and welcoming as possible.
“We offer a sanctuary for students that have different life experiences than maybe the traditional student and we seek refuge in that. It’s a place where we can tell our stories and commemorate on those,” said Ryan Rains, an environmental science major and work study student.
The Military and Veterans Success Center opened in fall 2015 in order to help veterans transition from military to college life. The center now provides services for 245 veterans and 198 dependents, and those numbers continue to grow.
The center started as a single, tiny space with just a few tables and computers. Now there are rows of computers and multiple tables that always seem to be in use. The second room contains a kitchenette with access to free drinks and snacks.
Free printing is also available to students.
The VA work study students are staffed peer counselors who sit down with students to assist them with the benefits application process. This ensures that students gain access to the benefits that they need in order to continue their education.
“Given what we started with, we have 100 percent more than what we had. But we still are only 50 percent of the way to getting what we should have,” said Milton White, assistant director of the Military and Veterans Success Center. “We should have a vet space that offers paid tutoring and academic assistance and paid on staff professional career counselors that actually are embedded with us.”
Veterans often feel out of place when they attend classes with students that are much younger and have had different life experiences.
“I open up all of my presentations with a picture of Billy Madison, where he’s sitting in a classroom with all the kids,” said White. “The reason I do that is not only because of the age difference, but because every veteran that sits in a classroom with younger students, they will feel just like (Madison). It’s their life experiences. They feel like the old guy and my life experience has really separated me from those around me in the classroom.”
White talked about the growth of this program and the hopes of the overall continual expansion of the center.
“I am happy that we have this great beginning in the assistance that we are starting to offer veterans. I still see this as a beginning. I don’t see it as the final,” said White.
The center recently received a $10,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation and Tampa Bay Rays as part of their Victories for Veterans initiative.
The money will provide students short term $1,000 to $2,000 loans to cover their tuition costs while waiting for their VA educational benefit payment to pay out.
The cost of education is a financial sacrifice for students. However, students who benefit from VA educational benefits have sacrificed more than just a financial burden.