Veterans returning to civilian life can face many challenges, but local colleges and universities are doing their part to make sure receiving an education isn’t one of them.
“They’ve served our country and they have put their lives on the line,” said Pat Toporzycki, director of the Veteran and Military Family Services Office at the University of Rochester. “The least we can do is support them when they come back and get them an education, get a career and help them get back into civilian life.”
Through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans are provided with benefits under the GI Bill, a federal education benefit program for colleges and universities. The most common GI Bill schools see is the Post-9/11 one, or Chapter 33. According to the VA, under this program, individuals are eligible if they served at least 90 days on active duty after Sept. 10, 2001.
If veterans are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they can receive money toward tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance based on a school’s zip code and a stipend of up to $1,000 for books and supplies. Time served by veterans determines the exact amount they receive. Veterans who serve at least 36 months are awarded 100 percent of each benefit. The percentage goes down as the number of months served decreases.
All schools must accept the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but some voluntarily participate in the VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides additional support to veterans for the cost of private institutions that Post-9/11 GI Bill amounts might not cover. With this program, the school decides to contribute a certain amount of money to a student and the VA matches it.
When U of R became a Yellow Ribbon School, it decided to offer an unlimited amount of money. Since it is a decentralized university, schools within it decide on their own whether to accept the Yellow Ribbon Program. According to Toporzycki, Simon Business School, Warner School of Education, School of Nursing, Eastman School of Music, and the graduate level of Arts and Sciences have all signed on as unlimited.
Having education benefits is one part of going to school for veterans, but another challenge can be finding an institution that is the best fit.
Since not every local school has a dedicated point of contact for veterans, David Oliver is a resource who is used quite often. He serves as the education outreach specialist at the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester.
“My primary job is to help transitioning veterans utilize their benefits and use them in the most efficient manner,” Oliver said.
For Oliver, who is a U.S. Army veteran currently serving in the New York Army National Guard, helping veterans allows him to take care of soldiers in his civilian capacity, too. In his role, he meets with veterans one-on-one in his office, helping them with the college application process, financial aid and veterans’ benefits.
Once a veteran decides on a school, gets accepted and enrolls, a few further steps need to happen, such as certification. Monica Gebhardt, assistant registrar and veterans coordinator at St. John Fisher College, is responsible for certifying veteran students.
“When a veteran student comes in, they bring us a certificate that shows what chapter they are in and which percentage they receive based on time served,” Gebhardt said. “I go on the VA website and say, ‘Yes, they’re a student here.’ ”
From here, veteran students see Gebhardt when there are problems with things such as their living stipend or book money. In a general sense, she’s the go-to point if students ever have a problem and then works with them to take care of the issue. Toporzycki and her colleague, Kate Ayers, do the same at U of R.
When veterans become part of student life at different schools in the area, there are other types of support. At Fisher, which has 78 students receiving veterans’ benefits, a student-run veterans affairs club meets monthly to talk about what issues its members may be facing.
Although U of R doesn’t have a student-run organization for veterans, there is talk of creating one for the roughly 100 veterans on campus. Until then, though, the Veterans Alliance helps students, faculty, staff and alumni who have served get what they need to succeed in higher education.
Nazareth College showed its commitment to veterans by creating a space specifically for them. The veterans lounge on campus is fully resourced and can be used for anything veterans need. Currently, the school is renovating the space to make sure it continues to serve students in the best way possible.
Chad Van Gorder is veteran students’ main resource at Nazareth. As the veterans’ enrollment coordinator, he is there to meet needs on a one-on-one basis, making sure veterans stay on track with their education. Because he just started this role in September, he is still meeting all of the veteran students.
Van Gorder retired from the Army a little over a year ago, but is also a Nazareth student using his VA education benefits. He will graduate in May with his bachelor’s in social work. Until then, he is a full-time student and a full-time employee.
“This year will be a little strenuous,” Van Gorder said. “For most of our veterans, they’re working and going to school, so this really gives me a perspective much like theirs. I can understand what they’re going through as we work together.”
Seeing other soldiers fail to use their education benefits really bothered Van Gorder and allowed him to see the importance of a role like his. Although only 53 students are using their veteran benefits, Van Gorder estimates there are around 75 total on campus. Some choose not to use their benefits or showcase themselves as veterans, he said.
“This was a unique opportunity for me to come here, get my degree and then actually get into this position and try to do something to help veterans get an education,” he said.
As a veteran himself, Oliver from the Veterans Outreach Center knows how important it is for veterans to serve their country and to continue to do so even after they leave the service. “Veterans want to make a contribution and I want them to have meaningful employment,” he said. “Not just employment, but where they’re doing something they enjoy.”
This story by Emily Mein is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.