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Education

USF gets plaudits for serving veterans


Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 11:22 AM

TAMPA - Larry Braue knows college campuses haven't always been havens for veterans and members of the military.

"When I was at Wisconsin, they dug graves in front of our ROTC building once," Braue said, recalling his stint at what was a leftist hotbed in the '80s. "They'd dress up like grim reapers."

The scene couldn't be more different today at the University of South Florida, where Braue sees a campus that has embraced its 1,700 military-affiliated students and plunged resources and effort into ensuring their success.

The focus is paying off. In recent months, USF has been recognized as the fourth-friendliest university in the nation to veterans by Military Times magazine - the only Florida university on the list.

Three students have been selected for Tillman Scholarships, a prestigious honor awarded by the foundation created to honor former National Football League player Pat Tillman, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan.

And Kiersten Downs, former head of the Student Veterans Association on campus, continues raising money and attention for student-veterans' issues as she nears the end of a cross-country bicycle trip.

"This university by far has been the most veteran-friendly out of all the universities I've ever been in contact with, through applications or having attended," said Richard Mendez, one of this year's Tillman Scholars, who is earning a master's degree in medical sciences. "This university by far stands above all others."

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Edward Woodward, one of two USF students to earn the Tillman honor last year, added, "You're not a number or a paying student. This campus' entire goal is to get you through to graduate at a level to be successful when you leave."

Mendez was joined by Anthony DeSantis, a second-year medical student, and Alicia Irvin, a graduate student in medical sciences, as this year's USF Tillman Scholars. Only two institutions, Harvard and George Washington universities, had more than USF, with four each. Only the universities of Arizona and Washington matched USF's level of three Tillman Scholars this year.

The key at USF has been making the transition from military life to student life as easy as possible, said Braue, the school's director of veterans services.

Some of that means simplifying the benefits bureaucracy. Where most universities have a couple of staff members charged with assisting the process of acquiring G.I. Bill or other benefits, USF has a free-standing office for veterans with experienced vets helping their peers through the process.

Other institutional adjustments have been made for veterans, too: USF allows certain military training to count for academic credits, waives late fees when there's a benefits mix-up, and offers online courses available to deployed service members.

But perhaps the most significant effort to help veterans transition to student life was the creation of the Veterans Achievement Center, a 3,000-square-foot hangout for veterans in the John & Grace Allen building. It has a computer lab, flat-screen TV with comfortable chairs, a kitchen and offices for counseling and support.

Simply put, it's a place for veterans to chill out with peers. "It's just a place where they can come and hang out, study, eat their lunch," Braue said.

The center addresses one of the most significant issues for returning veterans: trying to assimilate from a rigid, grueling military structure into the freewheeling life of a college student. It's not as easy as it sounds, veterans say.

"I had a lot of problems," said Mendez, an Army Ranger with four deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He started at USF at the time the United States launched the surge in Afghanistan, and he recalls phone call after phone call about friends and colleagues dying or being injured on the battlefield.

"To be getting those calls and then going to sit in a classroom where you hear the typical 18- or 19-year-old complaining about, 'I'm hung over from last night.' ... You're dealing with these thoughts in your head, and it's a really difficult experience," Mendez said.

"And if you don't have a good support system, it's really difficult to return to school and have people understand what you've been through."

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Braue tells of a student who was so tuned in to his demanding schedule as a submariner that when he arrived on campus, he questioned his decision to leave the military and eventually fell into depression.

"He felt the sense of purpose was lost," Braue said. "If you don't go to class, nobody cares. The structure's gone. It's so hard to fit in and get connected and feel like you're a part of this campus; that's why this has become so successful."

The office of veterans services is far from finished in its mission. Braue has established a "Got Your 6" program in conjunction with a national veterans re-entry campaign that equips USF faculty and staff with information and resources to help them help student vets. "Got your six" means "I've got your back," a saying that originated with World War I fighter pilots describing a pilot's rear as the 6 o'clock position.

He is setting up an academic intervention program so advisers will know when student veterans are struggling. And he eventually wants to establish mentorship, networking, and job training programs at USF.

The school's commitment to veterans starts at the top, Braue said. USF System President Judy Genshaft realized that troops from Iraq and Afghanistan were going to be returning to the U.S. with G.I. Bill benefits in tow and would be welcome at USF.

"It's important to the University of South Florida that our recognition of veterans and their contributions and sacrifices go far beyond ceremonial tributes," Genshaft said. "Our student veterans bring important and unique life experiences to campus that contribute to a diverse learning environment for all students. Veterans also come to the USF System with leadership skills that are in demand in a global economy, and we are working hard to make sure the education and atmosphere we provide student veterans maximizes their talents and skills going forward."

Meanwhile, the veterans community at USF is tracking the cross-country progress of Downs, a Ph.D candidate in anthropology who served seven years in the Air Force and Air National Guard, with three deployments to Iraq.

She took off on June 1 from San Francisco and hopes to hit the brakes in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 5. She has raised more than $43,000 on her bicycle journey and was expected to pull into Conway, Ark., Wednesday night on her way to the nation's capital.


jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7834




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