Home for the Brave
The Student Veteran Center at University Park provides a welcoming space for those who’ve served.
When a visitor enters the newly opened Student Veteran Center at University Park, they’re met with visual reminders that kick up a particularly somber sense of Penn State and patriotic pride. A glass case in the entryway displays old black and white photos of campus military trainings that took place during World Wars I and II. On the opposite wall are framed color photos of alumni killed in action, paired with blue bricks painted by fellow Penn State veterans and scrawled with the details of their ultimate sacrifice: PFC John Kilm, U.S. Army, KIA 19 April 2011. Cpt. Jessica Conkling, USMC, KIT 5 May 2009. Lt. Michael Murphy, U.S. Navy, KIA 28 June 2005…
They are stark reminders that this center was made to serve a valorous population of students. But such students—all affiliated with military service, either their own or an immediate family member’s—have a distinctly different reaction when they wander in, one that sets aside solemnity in favor of delight at the beautiful new base created just for them, and relief at having found a place that might hold the answer to a question.
“I’d see it all the time as I’m sitting in front of the doorway. They’d come in and just say, ‘Help me out,’ and everyone’s like ‘C’mon in, we’ll show you the ropes,’” says work-study student Kyle Larson, a senior labor and employment relations major and Marine Corps veteran. “It’s an area where you can feel comfortable, a shared connection space. You’re surrounded by brothers and sisters who are going to help you out.”
The $4 million center—a renovation of 6,300 square feet of Ritenour Building’s first floor—houses both the Office of Veterans Programs, which processes GI Bill benefits and supports military students at University Park, and the Office of Veterans Affairs and Services, which oversees universitywide military service-related events and advocacy efforts. The center also serves as a 24/7 gathering space for military-affiliated students enrolled at University Park: There are small study and counseling spaces, larger group study rooms, a kitchen and lounge area, and lockers for commuter students. “I think the center provides a sense of how much we appreciate our student veterans; it was built around their needs,” says Renée Thornton-Roop, senior director of the Office of Veterans Programs.
Penn State has consistently been named a top military/veteran-friendly school by such publications as Military Times, GI Jobs, and Military Advanced Education. Early this year, U.S. News and World Report ranked World Campus in the top 10 in six categories of its Best Online Programs for Veterans lists, including No. 2 for online graduate education and No. 6 for online bachelor’s programs.
Enrollment figures in general have dipped across the university this year, but in the fall of 2019, there were 800 military-affiliated students at University Park and 1,400 others enrolled at commonwealth campuses. Another 3,500 were enrolled in degree and certificate programs through World Campus, accounting for 19% of World Campus’s total students.
It is a unique segment of Penn State’s student population: The majority are adult learners, many with families and other outside obligations, and some have lingering physical or mental health issues stemming from their years of service. Meeting their needs, Thornton-Roop says, takes an equally unique game plan. “It’s providing case management—a therapeutic, all-encompassing, holistic sort of approach. We do it all.”
That strategy was introduced more than 40 years ago thanks to Brian Clark, recently retired senior director of Veterans Programs. Clark ’72, ’76 MEd, ’88 DEd Edu, who served four years in the Army after finishing his undergrad degree, was hired as a veterans’ counselor in 1979 and quickly recognized the need for the people in charge of certifying veterans’ GI Bill benefit forms to have counseling skills on top of their accounting skills. If student veterans are coming in to have their benefits certified, Clark reasoned, they should be helped by someone equipped to offer a different kind of assistance based on answers to other, non-finance-related questions—questions about their transition to college, and life after the military.
“These are people who are very highly motivated, and very independent,” says Clark, who retired in July after 41 years at Penn State. “They tend to not seek assistance at all. So we can get them in the office with the benefits, and we let them know that we’re here to help them in any way we can. If we do our job properly, they feel comfortable and will come back.”
Having their own personal HUB in the center of campus makes that return visit all the more enticing, says retired Air Force Col. Eugene McFeely, senior director of Veterans Affairs and Services. McFeely ’89 Eng returned to his alma mater in 2014 as the ROTC joint service coordinator and a professor of aerospace studies after a 27-year career in the Air Force. In 2017, when he accepted the newly created position he has now, President Eric Barron gave him the task of making the center a reality, from finding and designing the space, to raising half of its $4 million budget. “Dr. Barron is a huge military and veteran advocate,” says McFeely. Proof of that, he explains, came with the center’s completion: McFeely’s fundraising total was at a pandemic-related standstill of about $1.3 million this fall, “but here we are, we’re already in the facility before all the funds have been raised.”
The pandemic has kept the center closed to students this semester, but it’s not empty. From his new office there, McFeely oversees the planning of events like Military Appreciation Week in November, and the honor cord ceremony, sponsored by the Alumni Association, that’s held each semester for graduating veteran students. Around the corner and down the brightly lit hallway, Thornton-Roop and her team of certifying officials/counselors virtually assist students with securing their financial benefits and keeping their academic careers on track. Thornton-Roop, who is both an Air Force veteran and a social worker, says most of her colleagues are also veterans or come from military families.
That intentional common connection point is the same general thought behind the student sponsor program, which the office implemented in 2017 to pair a veteran upperclassman with first-year GI Bill beneficiaries. The program is mirrored after the military tradition of a service member being given a contact person in their new unit when transitioning to a new base. Larson, 25, has been a sponsor in the program since his second semester, after having benefited from being on the receiving end when he arrived at University Park, newly discharged from the Marines. As an adult learner with a certain kind of life experience but years removed from studying, being in classes with 18-year-olds who mostly asked if he could buy them alcohol was not what he’d envisioned his college experience to be.
“I didn’t know a single person when I came here. And walking around on campus, I thought I was the only veteran. We just look like normal people—and we are normal people, but you feel alone, and it’s scary. So getting an email from another veteran is a big relief.” Larson’s sponsor introduced him to other veteran students and helped him transition to college life—a big change from having a defined mission every day to setting one’s own schedule and goals.
There are typically three or four sponsors, each with a dozen or so freshmen they reach out to and keep tabs on. As things shifted to the virtual world this semester, Larson has been the lone sponsor with 46 first-semester, military-affiliated students on his roster. Besides email, there are virtual meetups and group chat rooms where the first-years can find support amid fellow students with similar backgrounds. There is also a support group for military dependents here pursuing their degrees using the GI Bill benefits of a parent, which is an ever-increasing segment of the military-affiliated student population.
Larson started graduate classes this semester along with his final year of bachelor’s degree requirements—a plan put in place with guidance from the Office of Veterans Programs, which works to not only certify GI Bill benefits, but help students maximize them. That includes suggesting summer classes, helping students get military training and coursework transferred to college credits, and letting them know about Penn State’s Integrated Undergraduate-Graduate Programs, five-year programs—like the one Larson is enrolled in—that allow students to pursue both an undergraduate and graduate degree simultaneously.
“You only have 36 months of (GI Bill) benefit,” McFeely explains. “All our students are on a timeline here.
World Campus military students face the same time crunch, under sometimes vastly different circumstances. John Carter, assistant director of military academic advising and disability services for World Campus, has a team of 14 advisers helping military-affiliated students work toward their degrees in whatever capacity they can. Carter and his team act as a hub of information and a consistent contact point for a population of students stationed at points around the globe, who have to handle overnight changes due to deployments, sudden missions, and reassignments. The World Campus staff staggers its hours so that any student in any part of the world can find an adviser awake and ready to help them.
World Campus classes are asynchronous, which Carter says is a big draw for those whose duties don’t afford them the luxury of being able to sit at a desk at the same time every day. Active-duty students also have the option of taking a “military withdraw” without a tuition penalty; a deferred grade if they need to suddenly be away on a training operation and can’t finish coursework on time; and they’re given priority registration a week before other students, to allow them timely access to needed classes and their benefits processed quickly. “We understand what they’re doing for our country, and we want to support them,” Carter says.
Ashley Cutwa, a four-year Army veteran, started at World Campus in 2017. Initially determined to attend in-person college classes, she had previously enrolled at two other universities in cities where she and her family lived. But her husband is still on active duty, so between 2013, when they married, and 2017, they moved from Washington to Virginia to Colorado to Germany. Finally, Cutwa realized her dream of having a traditional college experience was secondary to her dream of earning a degree and starting a career in biobehavioral health. “I’m thankful for all of the services and flexibility that World Campus offers,” says Cutwa, who took classes while the family was in Germany. “They just make it as easy as possible for people all over the world.”
While World Campus students are not tethered to a physical Penn State campus, they are invited to take advantage of programs and services offered at University Park. The freshman seminar created by Clark and Thornton-Roop in 2016 to help first-year students successfully transition from military service to college is open to World Campus students, who may attend virtually.
“A lot of our students coming in are first-generation, they don’t have the advantage of having folks from their family who can give them knowledge about how things work. So we’re giving them a crash course: What does your adviser do? What is Career Services? What is the learning center? Financial aid, filing a disability claim, GI Bill benefits, health care,” Thornton-Roop says. “We also talk a lot about transition and identity, how you go from having such a defined purpose in the military to the ambiguity of higher education and making your own schedule.”
All Penn State military-affiliated students and their families are invited to attend the university’s Military Appreciation Week events, which typically include a giant catered tailgate and free tickets to that day’s home football game. “The tailgate is the largest event of its kind in the Big Ten,” says McFeely, who oversees the celebration, which started as a sustained effort in 2012 with 100 football tickets given away and no tailgate. In 2019, 7,000 free tickets, donated by fans and the athletic department, were reserved within 20 minutes, and 8,000 guests attended the tailgate free of charge.
This year, of course, looks different. A virtual Military Appreciation Day, with a livestreamed ceremony that honors veterans, is planned for Nov. 11. McFeely wishes he could open the Student Veteran Center to visiting service members that day, but such hospitality will have to wait. So, too, will the planned hosting of after-hours social events for the students, and pizza parties for corporate partners and recruiters who wish to meet with student veterans when they come to campus.
Clark, who worked at the new center for much of the last nine months of his career, marvels at what it signifies about the commitment Penn State has to those who’ve served. “When we started the veteran program it was on temporary, annually approved money. Everyone was on fixed-term appointments. My goal was to try to maintain a presence for veterans. I felt—and still feel—that it’s a vital part of our land-grant mission,” he says. “It’s a responsibility we have to the commonwealth.”