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Armed for the Future

New Center Aids
in Transition from
Military to Campus Life

By Randy Wells
November 26, 2014
Appeared in the Fall-Winter 2014 issue of
IUP Magazine.

After applying to IUP in December of last year, Josh Maloney, a 30-year-old US Marine Corps veteran with two tours of duty in Iraq, was taken by surprise when his acceptance letter indicated he could start classes that January.

But that presented a problem. There was not enough time for the Department of Veterans Affairs to process the stipend for textbooks Maloney was entitled to as a vet, and he arrived on campus not knowing how he would pay for the $300 in books he needed.

Fortunately, Maloney met Michael Oquendo, president of the IUP Veterans Organization and a student worker in the Military Resource Center. Through Oquendo, Maloney met David Sabulsky, an Army captain and the center’s interim director, who walked Maloney to the Co-op Store and helped set up a line of credit to get him the textbooks he needed with arrangements to pay when his stipend from the government came through.

It was precisely the type of assistance the Military Resource Center was created to deliver.

Cory Shay, director of the Military Resource Center

The Military Resource Center, directed by Cory Shay, is both a physical space and a system that coordinates services, information, and guidance for military-affiliated students. Photo by Keith Boyer

The center opened in January to help military-affiliated students—veterans, those on active duty, reservists, and National Guard members—make the transition from the military to life as a successful university student.

About 550 students at IUP fall into those military-affiliated categories, and for many of them, the transition from carrying a rifle to a book bag is a difficult one.

The MRC is both a physical space and a system that coordinates people and university departments that provide services, information, advice, and guidance for military-affiliated students.

Located in Pratt Hall, the center has computers and other equipment student-veterans can use without charge; a conference room equipped with audio and visual technology for presentations and group or private study; and a small lounge for relaxing between classes, watching TV, and chatting with fellow vets.

The center also offers literature on topics pertinent to military-affiliated students: educational and health care benefits, financial and housing assistance, counseling services, local businesses that offer discounts to veterans, work-study opportunities, and scholarships.

Assistance in a personal form is provided by Cory Shay, the center’s director, and by Oquendo and other students who man the center under a VA work-study program. The work-study students have firsthand experience in making the switch from military life to campus life.

Sabulsky, the center’s interim director for its first few months, graduated from IUP in 2001, was commissioned as an Army officer, and returned to his alma mater in 2012 as an assistant professor in the Military Science Department. As a military veteran who deals with college students on a daily basis, he’s well aware how difficult it can be moving from one world to the other.

“It’s a big transition,” a switch from a hierarchical environment in the military to a bureaucratic environment in college, he said.

The military has a built-in structure, he explained. Army soldiers, for example, know they can go to their squad leader, then their platoon sergeant and platoon leader if they have a problem.

But when veterans come to college, they often do not know who takes care of what issues, which office processes which forms, or where to get the guidance or assistance they need. Sabulsky described the MRC as an advocate that can help student-veterans connect with the benefits they and their dependents are entitled to.

In addition to issues in obtaining benefits, veterans face other difficulties adjusting to life outside the military. IUP sociology faculty member Demond Mullins, a combat veteran of Iraq who now does research on the reintegration of veterans, understands those challenges firsthand.

Rhonda Luckey, vice president for Student Affairs, spoke at the Military Resource Center open house in April.

Rhonda Luckey, vice president for Student Affairs, spoke at the Military Resource Center open house in April. In the foreground are Stephen Abel ’73, who pledged support for an emergency fund for veterans, and President Michael Driscoll. Photo by Keith Boyer

“Veterans have consistently, throughout the history of the GI Bill, proven that they are capable of excelling and even changing the nature of higher education by how well they perform,” he said.

But despite having the maturity that comes with being a few years older and the personal discipline gained through military duty, student-veterans have to learn to deal with a lot of new stimuli when they arrive on campus, Mullins said. They must learn to be the agenda-setter, and they must develop self-direction to be successful in college.

“You [the student] develop what is important rather than having anyone do that for you,” he said. “Taking ownership over this very curious process of education is more elusive than becoming a good soldier or a good Marine or a good seaman.”

Rhonda Luckey, IUP’s vice president for Student Affairs, first became aware of the unusual needs of military-affiliated students when she met Tim Snyder seven years ago. Snyder had enrolled at IUP in 1998, left school in 2000 to enlist in the Marine Corps, and came back to the university in 2005.

“Taking ownership over this very curious process of education is more elusive than becoming a good soldier or a good Marine or a good seaman.”

“I expected to pick up where I left off,” he said, but he was surprised at how much had changed in his life. “I just could not find my way to a normal routine.” He switched majors from music to business to sociology. “I couldn’t find my niche.”

In 2007, Snyder met with Luckey and pitched the idea of creating special counseling services to help veterans adjust successfully to university life.

More recently, the Veterans Outreach Group, an advisory body with student, faculty, staff, and community members, also saw a need for a support system for student-veterans. When Michael Driscoll, the university’s president, made available the opportunity to apply for strategic initiative funding, the VOG wrote a successful grant application that transformed the group’s aspirations to a delivery system of services and assistance.

“The success of student-veterans and military-affiliated students depends upon a holistic, integrated support structure,” said Luckey, who started the outreach group. “The Military Resource Center is intended to look holistically at the needs of our students and help our student-veterans find their way as they move through their college career.

“We want to enable them to achieve their academic goals, to persist and graduate and be employed in the field of their academic discipline,” she said.

Luckey also wants students who come into the MRC for the first time to be struck by this special service the university offers them and to be able to ask questions and get answers that provide a direct benefit.

One strategy Shay has for the center is to contact 20 percent of the veterans on campus each month, ask them how they’re doing academically, and encourage them to come to the center if they need help. He wants the MRC to work closely with the academic community and hopes to start peer mentoring and tutoring programs for veterans.

“We want to enable them to achieve their academic goals, to persist and graduate and be employed in the field of their academic discipline.”

“We’re going to identify veterans who are good at math and good at writing who can be mentors and tutors,” he said. “Research shows that veterans really do relate better when they’re responding to other veterans.”

The center stands ready to assist not only military-affiliated students but dependents of veterans as well.

“I don’t think dependents realize a lot of the benefits they may be entitled to,” especially if a parent was disabled by military service, Shay said.

The higher education assistance benefits many veterans are entitled to through the VA are too important to be overlooked. Honorably discharged vets who served at least three years on active military duty are eligible to have 100 percent of their tuition and fees paid and to receive a $1,000 per year book stipend and a housing allowance of up to $1,128 per month in Indiana County. They are also eligible for $100 per month for tutoring and to have the VA pay for certification testing. Vets who served less time on active duty may qualify for smaller tuition, fee, and housing allowances.

“We actively recruit vets,” Shay said, and they are attracted to IUP for several reasons—among them the criminology major, the Criminal Justice Training Center, and the new Military Resource Center.

“If you look at the national data, only about 11 percent of the colleges and universities have a veterans’ office or a military resource center,” he said. 

Oquendo, a 25-year-old junior from Philadelphia majoring in safety sciences, served in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps in 2010 and now works 25 hours a week in the Military Resource Center.

Michael Oquendo, president of the IUP Veterans Organization, met with Laura Krulikowski, one of the student group’s advisors, in the Military Resource Center.

Michael Oquendo, president of the IUP Veterans Organization, met with Laura Krulikowski, one of the student group’s advisors, in the Military Resource Center. Photo by Keith Boyer

In the months since the center opened, he has observed student-veterans frequently using the center’s computers to access their military records, seeking help in getting disability support services, and learning more about the health care and education assistance benefits they are entitled to.

The vets know they must maintain good academic standing to keep their GI Bill educational benefits in force, so the MRC’s computer lab and quiet study spaces are often in use, he said.

According to Shay, in the first month of the fall semester, the MRC received 314 visits—284 of them in person—up significantly from the spring and summer.

“The goal of our office is to provide them that support—to help them reintegrate into college life, to give them resources along the way,” Shay said. “We’ll help them navigate the college and community resources and get them where they need to go.”

Connecting Vets with Education

Some recent developments will likely impact the number of military veterans enrolling at IUP.

  • The university’s Financial Aid office can now receive from the VA a list of veterans from Pennsylvania separated from the military in the past five years. The initial list obtained over the summer contains about 60,000 names. According to Christie Ritchey Scatena ’09, M’14, assistant director of Financial Aid and Veterans Affairs coordinator, the lists may be used to mail general information about educational benefits to the recently discharged vets. Follow-up contacts could be an opportunity to tell vets about specific assistance programs at IUP, like the Military Resource Center.
  • IUP pays up to $2,000 annually of the tuition for veterans who live outside Pennsylvania and are charged the higher out-of-state tuition. Through its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, the university shares the differential in tuition costs with the VA. Starting in 2015, military vets, regardless of their home state, will be charged the lower in-state tuition rate at IUP.
  • A change on IUP’s initial admission application form asks applicants to provide more information about their status as veterans, active duty military, or dependents of either. Identifying vets earlier in the enrollment process and connecting them sooner with the MRC could ease their transition to college life.
  • IUP was selected by G.I. Jobs magazine for its 2015 list of Military Friendly Schools. It’s the fourth year IUP was included on the list, which honors institutions the magazine’s editors describe as delivering “the best experience for military students.” Only 20 percent of colleges and universities in the nation were selected.

    In 2012 and 2013, IUP also was selected by Military Times magazine as one of the nation’s “Best for Vets” institutions. It was one of only 68 four-year colleges in the nation chosen for the recognition.

Keep Reading: Research Group Explores Reintegration of Veterans

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