Marc Churchwell, retired Navy master chief petty officer and director of the University of West Florida (UWF) Military and Veterans Resource Center (MVRC), graced me with an interview last month. UWF opened the MVRC in October 2011 on the main Pensacola, Fla., campus, creating a one-stop shop to assist with advising, tutoring, counseling, disability accommodations, GI Bill education benefits and referrals to other state or federal resources. It is more than a place for Service members to lounge and connect with like-minded individuals who have similar experiences. Many veteran centers, like the MVRC, are active, communal resources that veterans should consider when choosing an educational institution.
President Obama's Executive Order 13607 "Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and other Family Members," signed in April 2012, establishes guidance for UWF's program. UWF has also signed the Department of Defense Voluntary Education Partnership Memorandum of Understanding (DoD MOU), supporting quality education for active duty Service members and maintaining eligibility to participate in the DoD Tuition Assistance (TA) program.
The need for veteran centers increases as Service members pursue degrees and certifications. For instance, more than 23 percent of UWF students – about 2,800 people – are active duty military, veterans, or their dependents. More than 2,500 people have walked through the MVRC's front door since it opened, in search of some form of support. Additionally, there have been just as many email and phone inquiries to the MVRC staff, according to Churchwell.
The UWF MVRC is staffed by veterans to serve veterans. However, an interesting note is with the Post 9/11 GI Bill, many young traditional-aged students (more than 300) are attending UWF using benefits transferred to them by an active duty parent. "To ensure these students receive needed support services, we have three MVRC students in this demographic on staff to serve as transition coaches," said Churchwell. Such services not only ease the mind of the Service member parent, but provide much needed assistance to the student. What does your school offer?
Readjustment can be the greatest challenge for Service members. To that end, the MVRC provides a private office for visiting counselors from the local Veterans Affairs (VA) vet center and healthcare system. Both of these representatives provide weekly support to veteran students as well as assistance with the VA healthcare system. The more institutions that partner with established veteran programs, the more they can benefit from resources that have already been developed with veterans in mind.
Is your school truly "veteran friendly?" For example, UWF recently approved a proposal from the MVRC to waive fees not covered by the TA program for active duty military members. The new policy will go into effect during the 2013 summer semester. Veterans should look for benefit programs that will help their TA or GI Bill funds stretch as far as possible. Another area of consideration is how the Yellow Ribbon program, a provision of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, is being utilized. Only individuals entitled to the maximum benefit rate, based on Service requirements, can receive funding through the program. UWF currently funds tuition expenses for eligible military and veteran students through the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program.
Veteran centers can serve as a critical resource to assist military and veteran students as they transition from the military to campus life, and can be very beneficial. The UWF MVRC website can provide a comparison point as Service members consider what resource options might be of interest to them as they compare institutions. Imagine, DANTES products and services (www. dantes.doded.mil) coupled with the support of an active veteran center…the possibilities could be limitless! Know your options! As always, I look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.