Student Veteran Association

Student veterans on campus. 

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

The student veteran and eligible dependent population at the University of Texas at Austin is one of many important groups on campus that the University serves. We recognize this group has faced many challenges prior to enrolling at UT, and that navigating access to state and federal education benefits should not be one of them.  

Since the inception of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and changes to the Hazlewood Act, a law that provides tuition exemptions to eligible veterans and their dependents, were made in 2009, there has been a significant increase in the number of eligible students seeking to use their benefits.   

UT-Austin has seen the effect of this increase; since 2009 the University has experienced an increase of more than 275 percent in Hazlewood exemption requests and a 22.5 percent increase in students requesting benefits provided by the GI Bill. 

According to the National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics, the Central Texas area has the fastest-growing population of veterans in the nation. In spring 2013 alone, the University had 1,494 individuals requesting benefits.

The increased number of eligible students has extended the time it takes for students to gain access to these benefits nationwide, as well as here on our campus. Recognizing this, we have launched efforts to improve the experience for our student veterans and dependents by bringing together all offices assisting this population on campus — the Office of the Registrar, the Office of Admissions, the Office of Accounting and Student Veteran Services — to review how other institutions are serving their student veterans and to implement a unified approach to address the realities facing such students on our campus.  

Additionally, we engaged students by collaborating with the Student Veteran Association, the official student veteran group on campus.  

Over the past year, through this collaboration with students and various offices on campus, the University has worked hard to expedite students’ access to the GI Bill and the Hazlewood exemption.  

The Office of the Registrar sought input from Student Veteran Services and the Student Veteran Association and developed strategies to improve the experience of student veterans and eligible dependents seeking to use their benefits. As a result of these collaborations, we enhanced the benefit sessions during orientations to assist students as soon as they arrive on campus. The Office of the Registrar also made a number of improvements to its internal processes and developed informational websites to better explain the benefits and how to access them. 

The university created a tuition coverage program that allowed for 79 percent of the students using federal education benefits used to secure their enrollment before they had paid their tuition. In doing so, the program kept qualified students from having to take action on their tuition costs before they had received their federal funding. The Office of the Registrar and Student Veteran Services have additionally worked together to ensure comprehensive office hours at locations across campus to provide easy access to expert guidance regarding benefits.  

The cooperation among various offices on campus and the Student Veteran Association has resulted in a student veteran experience far different from this time last year. We will continue to work together as a University to serve students in the most efficient way possible, evaluate our processes and seek strategic and innovative solutions to the challenges we may face.        

Benjamin Armstrong is the Director of Student Veteran Services at the University. Shelby Stanfield is a Vice Provost and the University Registrar. 

A recent article in the Texan concerning the Student Veteran Association’s efforts to obtain non-classification group seating for UT football games missed the mark.

This past summer when the SVA established a group to register for stadium seating, a rift developed between our members. We are unique among student organizations in that our average member is a decade older than members of other organizations. The upperclassmen of our organization who had pooled for tickets in the past were not looking forward to sitting among the throngs of 18- and-19-year-old freshmen students again — anyone who has sat at the top of the stadium before can probably understand their discontent. Some even started their own seating group and discouraged freshmen and sophomore veterans from joining. This move angered our entering veterans, and they were less inclined to participate in our organization.

The goal of the SVA is to create a community that supports student veterans in their transition from active duty to civilian life. Many veterans face depression and loneliness while in college because they are surrounded by so many students that do not share their same personal experiences. The accomplishment of this goal hinges on the interaction and socialization of those members who have already successfully made the transition into society with those entering veterans who have not. The biggest opportunity for new and old student veterans to mix is SVA tailgating, which has been a tradition for seven years and usually draws more than 80 veterans. The rift that had developed threatened to disrupt this valuable social opportunity.

SVA vice president Marc Hamlin and I tried to resolve this issue by requesting from UT’s athletics department the special seating normally reserved for spirit groups, where classification has no bearing on seating assignments. At no point was the SVA trying to acquire choice seating for veterans, nor were we trying to avoid our fellow students. We simply wanted to pool for tickets as a group without having to worry that one freshman veteran would relegate every other veteran to the back of the stadium. Considering the sacrifice that student veterans have made for this country and the daily challenges they face, we did not believe this was asking much from the athletics department.Over the summer, we contacted anyone and everyone connected to the athletics department and the stadium that might be able to help our cause. The responses fell into three categories: either we received no reply, were passed along to someone else or were told that if they did it for us, they would have to do it for everyone else too. It is this last response that really hits to the core of what is wrong with how this University looks at student veterans’ issues. It has continually marginalized student veterans by categorizing us as just one of many student groups. As a demographic, veterans face the highest rates of divorce, depression, unemployment, homelessness and suicide in this nation. Ignorance of these facts has continually led this University to fall short in meeting the needs of student veterans. UT must begin to see the larger picture of veterans’ needs if it wishes to adequately give back to those who served so many.

This past weekend I attended the Veterans Day game at which UT has honored Texas veterans every year. I watched with chagrin as the members of one of the spirit groups with special seating status danced around in monkey suits and other getups for all to see on the scoreboard. But at no time could cameras be pointed at the 650 student veterans that occupied the stadium, because only a handful of us were actually sitting together. While the other spirit groups use the perks of special seating to entertain, we would use it to support veterans.

Ollar is an economics senior from Midlothian, Texas and the president of the UT Student Veterans Association.

 

Airforce ROTC students stand in front of the tower during a ceremony honoring Veterans Day on the South mall Monday afternoon. 

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

ROTC students take down the American flag and the Prisoner of War flag on the South mall Monday afternoon. Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff  

 

Student members of UT’s ROTC programs stood in formation as the flag raised over South Mall during a Veterans Day ceremony Monday.

The ceremony was a joint effort between the Texas Army, Navy and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps programs in order to pay tribute to the men and women that served in the United States Armed Forces.

“It’s important to pay attention to a sacrifice someone has made for you,“ Stephen Ollar, president of the Student Veteran Association and economics senior, said.

He said being a veteran is something to be proud of. He served in the Army before attending UT and, through the association, tries to make life as students easier for veterans at UT.  

“We try to help veterans find friends, find a source of communication, something that can help them from going into some of the pitfalls of being a veteran: the isolation, the loneliness, the suicide that can come with being a veteran,”  Ollar said.

He said it is a common misconception that all veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or other post-service disorders. He said it is easier to relate with people that have been through similar experiences.

Benjamin Armstrong, coordinator of Student Veteran Services, served as a Marine and said he has worked with 1,947 of UT’s student veterans through the Student Veteran Services office. Student Veteran Services opened on Veterans Day 2011 and celebrated its first anniversary Sunday.

“We are a one-stop shop on campus for veterans and their dependents to access this institution and understand how it works,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he is a natural fit for his position, because as a veteran he can connect with student veterans and help them get all the benefits for which they are eligible.

“I give them the lay of the land and a safe haven. The Student Veteran Association gives them that group of fellow travelers to be social with,” Armstrong said.

Lee Leffingwell, Austin mayor and Navy veteran, spoke at the ceremony about his experience during Aviation Officer Training School. He said 40 years later, he still remembers two of his sergeant instructors, who died in the line of duty during the Vietnam War. He said the lessons they taught him transferred from active duty into his life as a veteran.

“For my years of experience as mayor and retired Navy commander, I believe that the values you develop and will continue to develop will continue through aspects of your life,” Leffingwell said.

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kopser, commanding officer of Texas Army ROTC, said it is thrilling to watch young students choose a life of service in the Armed Forces when they join one of UT’s ROTC programs.

“It is a huge honor to watch young people raise their right hand to join the United States Armed Forces during a time of war and take an oath to preserve the United States,” Kopser said.

Printed on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 as: Time of appreciation