Josh Evans recently searched the warehouses at Clark Hall and found the blue billboard used 10 years ago when the Veterans Center at the University of Missouri-St. Ludwig.
Evans, the Veterans Center coordinator, had it on display in the Millennium Student Center’s Century Rooms last Wednesday night as members of the campus community gathered to celebrate the anniversary exactly a decade later.
The evening event provided an opportunity to celebrate the invaluable service the Center has provided to thousands of military-affiliated students since its inception. Those present gave special recognition to the role Associate Teaching Professor Jim Craig played in making it what it is today.
“We have approximately 300 to 350 student veterans each semester, and they bring a wealth of unique strengths to our campus community such as discipline, work ethic, maturity, achievement orientation, and progression aligned with mission,” Evans said. “You bring lived experience with core values, leadership and people skills, just to name a few. Helping veterans make the transition from the military to academia is a core part of what we do. We walk alongside them to motivate and empower them to build on the strengths they bring and to develop and acquire new knowledge and skills that they can use in their future.
“We serve as the first point of contact for our veterinarians. If you have any problems on campus, give us a call and we’ll talk about it. We find out what they need and put them in touch with anyone on campus who can help.”
That kind of support didn’t exist 10 years ago, as former College of Arts and Sciences dean Ron Yasbin relayed as he shared the Veterans Center’s genesis story in a video he recorded for the anniversary event.
Yasbin, in his role as dean at the time, had a permanent student advisory group that elected himself.
“Basically, any arts or science student could be part of the group,” he said, “and we would meet regularly to discuss their ideas, problems, and what they weren’t happy about.”
During one meeting, half of the attendees were veterans, and they told Yasbin how they got ping-ponged. They were unable to register for courses until their VA benefits were processed, but they could not have their services approved until they registered for courses and there was no one to help them through the bureaucracy navigate.
Benjamin Ebert, a Navy veteran pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology and criminal justice, learned exactly what the experience was like while studying at a previous institution.
“There was no specific place for veterans, no specific person who could help,” he said. “The person who helped us to fill out our paperwork was just someone from the Registrar’s Office who didn’t know anything about it. The paperwork they originally had me fill out wasn’t even the proper paperwork so all my payments were denied. I actually had to do my own research, Googling things online and calling 1-800 numbers and figuring out how to register for my own college there.
“When I came here, it was like a completely different process.”
That’s because Yasbin heeded the words of student veterans on his advisory board and made a commitment to do something about it. He sought help from Craig, at the time a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who was serving as commander of the St. Louis Area Army ROTC program and a member of the Dean’s Executive Committee.
Together they helped develop a plan to create a Veterans Center, co-located in an academic department and in the student affairs department, that could provide comprehensive support to veterans as they transition from service to academic life.
Curt Coonrod, then Dean of Studies at UMSL, was a strong supporter of the concept, and then-Chancellor Tom George also became a supporter of it.
It was initially housed in the newly created Department of Military and Veterans Studies. Craig, who was about to retire from the Army, was offered the opportunity to lead the department and worked with interim director Ryan Barrett to establish the center and ensure its success.
“Ten years later, we’re still committed to the same mission,” Evans said. “When a veteran decides to come to UMSL, we work to support them from the moment they walk in to the moment they leave.”
That starts with certifying their educational achievements for Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, and working closely with student financial services, college counseling, and the registry office to ensure all requirements are met.
Veterans Center staff also work to connect military-affiliated students with other campus resources, and the center itself is a welcoming place where veterans new to campus can find students with similar life experiences who offer camaraderie and support be able.
“The Veterans Center is not an island or a bunker,” said Robin Kimberlin, the director of Student Advocacy and Care, who has overseen the Veterans Center for the past year. “Our job is to put veterans on their next path to success.”
That means helping them integrate with the rest of the campus.
The formula has proven successful and attracted attention elsewhere. UMSL has been included in the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges list for the past eight years.
Craig has remained a staunch advocate on behalf of student veterans, working with former Veterans Center directors Barrett, Rebecca Abbott and Joshua Perschbacher, and now with Evans. But as his own academic career has grown and he has become chair of the department of sociology and associate dean at the College of Arts and Sciences, he has less daily interaction with the Veterans Center.
He was uncomfortable accepting all the praise he was showered with during the anniversary celebration.
“I might have helped build it, but what happened is the university took it on,” Craig said. “It’s theirs, not ours. That’s the most exciting thing. The structures, the support, the students and the faculty and the staff who care for veterans — that has become the culture of the institution.”
Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=96188