Kennesaw State University’s Veterans Resource Center, the first of its kind in Georgia, is making strides to address the needs of a growing population of student veterans.
As the state's third-largest university, has seen its student veteran population double the past two years.
The center's director, Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Frank Wills, says the largely student-run center aims to serve as a "one-stop shop" for veterans as they transition into college.
The center is helping to put Kennesaw State on the map as a leader among veteran-friendly campuses. G.I. Jobs' 2012 list ranks the university in the top 15 percent of military-friendly schools nationwide.
“The Veterans Resource Center is a need,” Wills says. “We’re in a wartime effort. Let’s be there where the communities weren’t there as far as the Vietnam eras were concerned. I mean, personally, we’re making up for a lot of mistakes.”
“We haven’t seen the likes of this since World War II. Coupled with the economy, the (student veteran) population just exploded.”
Back on the Homefront
“Right now, we’re seeing an influx we’ve never seen before in higher education,” Wills says of the student veteran population.
He says the number of veterans at KSU has increased from about 300 in 2009 to more than 700.
Of the more than 2.5 million American troops who have served since 2001, Wills says about 800,000 attended school last year, "so we’re talking about a third of the people who have served."
Student veterans used to make up maybe 1 percent of a typical university’s student population—now that number can be anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent, Wills says, noting that the increase "happened overnight."
He attributes the surge to a massive influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill in 2009. The bill provides tuition and housing support to men and women who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001.
“We haven’t seen the likes of this since World War II,” Wills says of the law. “Coupled with the economy, the (student veteran) population just exploded.”
Wednesday, the House passed a bill that offers tax credits to employers who hire unemployed veterans. About 240,000, or 12.1 percent of post-9/11 veterans, were unemployed in October, compared with a national unemployment rate of 9 percent.
The rate is even higher among America's wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; more than a quarter of them are estimated to be unemployed.
A Grassroots Movement
KSU student and Navy veteran John Breckenridge has been with the university's Veterans Resource Center since its inception about two years ago. He says the center started as a loosely knit group of veterans who wanted to help other veterans.
"You’re a service member or a veteran. You want to go to college. You come to us and go, 'Look, man, I want to go to college. What do I do?' " Breckenridge says.
"First thing we tell them is 'These are your benefits. You have to own them. We can’t do it for you.' "
KSU leadership took note of the students' efforts. The center officially opened in 2010 with the support of the university and the arrival of Wills—the first professional to be hired for an on-campus Veterans Resource Center in the state.
The former Marine and Combat Action Ribbon recipient previously worked at Mississippi State's Center for America’s Veterans. Wills helped organize Student Veterans of America, a coalition of student veterans groups on college campuses across the United States. He describes the effort as a grassroots movement of veterans coming together to define their place in the university system.
"These are your benefits. You have to own them. We can’t do it for you."
Wills says he connected with Kennesaw State student veteran leaders during a Mississippi State-hosted forum on the meaning of the term "veteran-friendly."
He says the meeting entailed a free exchange of ideas among the student veteran community: "Let’s sit down and just me and you talk about it over some chips and a Pepsi."
Addressing Student Veterans' Needs
Student veterans face a number of unique challenges. There are the physical and psychological scars of war, along with the economic and social obstacles that come with readjusting to civilian life.
According to a 2010 survey of nearly 11,000 student veterans, one in five combat veterans reported at least one disability—twice the rate of nonmilitary students. Full-time first-year combat veterans reported spending “twice as much time working and about six times as many hours on dependent care” as their nonveteran peers.
The report also found that student veterans were “generally less engaged and perceived lower levels of support from their campuses."
"Veteran-friendly means having people on campus that understand and are aware of the veteran population," Wills says.
That involves accepting American Council on Education recommendations for military credit and having veteran-friendly withdrawal policies and a military tuition deferment plan in place, he says.
At the student level, veteran-friendly means having a strong ROTC, an active student veterans club and veteran representation in student government, Wills says.
Traditionally, colleges have a single person on campus who serves as a liaison between the school and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Wills says.
But KSU's Veterans Resource Center is a division of Student Success Services. Student veterans in the work-study program staff the center. Wills and his team counsel other veterans about their educational options, guide them through the college application process and advise them on the benefits they're entitled to.
The center also offers a mentoring program and serves as a doorway to other services, such as financial and psychological counseling.
"As a veteran, you’re largely a nontraditional student," Wills says. "You’re dealing with a 10-year war with people with a heightened level of training that now are coming back into school. And they have a combat experience that they’re bringing back to the classroom."
He adds: "You’re talking about financial, psychological, counseling (and) social needs."
A Sense of Community
KSU student and Veterans Resource Center worker David Carper says he serves multiple roles as transition coordinator, office manager, internship supervisor and payroll specialist.
The 28-year-old served in the Army infantry for the better part of a decade in Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, among other places.
The biggest challenge he faced after ending his military service and entering college: "The lack of accountability in the civilian world."
"In the military, you’re taught to take ownership whether you succeed or fail," Carper says. "On the civilian side, that lack of accountability made it very difficult to build working relationships with people who’d never been in the military."
But Carper says he found a shared sense of community and purpose through his work at the Veterans Resource Center.
"It’s actually quite comforting," he says. "Your experiences with people, whether they’re like-minded or not, it automatically builds a rapport."
He says most veterans don’t know one another, "but once they’re introduced to each other, they feel like they’ve known each other for years. That camaraderie is there. It’s just a matter of putting those two people together."
KSU student and center worker Richard Sisk, 25, entered the Army infantry at the age of 17, straight out of high school. He says financial problems were his biggest issues when he re-entered civilian life.
"My favorite part of the job is knowing that I'm helping other people that are like me—that have been through, that are going through the same problems that I’m going through. It’s familiar, and it’s gratifying to help people," he says.
"Man, it’s done everything for me," Sisk says of the center. "It’s all about the shared experiences and the mentorship. Frank’s been a big mentor to me."
Going forward into the center's second year, Wills says he hopes to do more community outreach. In the long term, his vision is to make the Veterans Resource Center a "360-degree approach" to serving the veteran community.
The fact that student veterans compose the core of the center is what makes it so special, Wills says.
"I just kind of drive the train. I set the structure," he says. "But without that nucleus of that student experience—that is what makes us unique."
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Kennesaw are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.
We'll also be doing a series of profiles on student veterans at KSU in an effort to learn more about the university's veteran community—one story at a time.