On the surface, enrolling at LSU in 2016 should have been a natural fit for Charles Hunter. After all, he grew up in Baton Rouge.
But Hunter was different from his fellow freshman. He was 26, about eight years older than his peers because of his time in the U.S. Navy. Then, Hunter discovered Student Veterans of LSU.
"The first SVLSU meeting I went to, I was, like, 'Holy crap! This is awesome!" Hunter said. "I don't have any friends, and now I have people that know what I'm talking about and get the jokes that I'm saying and speak the same language."
Hunter liked it so much he later became the group's president. Student Veterans of America, the national parent organization, liked it enough to name LSU's group as Chapter of the Year in January. The LSU chapter was selected out of 1,500 school chapters nationally.
Started in 2011, Student Veterans of LSU offers services to more than 900 students who are veterans or are using federal veteran benefits passed to them by a parent or spouse, and also has philanthropic outreaches to off-campus veterans. Roughly 100 students participate in the chapter.
Age is part of what makes the transition to college challenging for veterans, though not the only part.
"A lot of veterans coming out and going to college are first-generation, myself included," said James Graham, 27, a Marine veteran and computer engineering freshman from Tallahassee, Florida. "We can't turn to our parents because they've never experienced college. We can't turn to our grandparents; they never experienced college. We have to look for friends or cousins or someone who has been in college and had that experience.
"Because we're first-gen, a lot of these veterans coming in can relate to us more and are able to take the feedback from us on the college experience."
Although LSU has a storied martial history, except for those in ROTC, the modern campus is far removed from military life. When Tyler Kruse, an Army veteran and computer engineering senior from Phoenix, Arizona, enrolled, he joined a fraternity. He didn't stay long.
"I just didn't see eye to eye," said Kruse, 24, who now is the Student Veterans vice president. "We don't have the same priorities. I was here to get my degree, get the best out of my college experience, and I didn't want to party all the time. I didn't want to mess around and do things other than school."
In addition to the social connections, the chapter works in cooperation with the William A. Brookshire Military & Veterans Student Center. Some of its members offer tutoring to those with veterans' benefits, and the chapter encourages students to donate used books, which helps veterans cut their school costs by $200 to $600 a semester, said Mark Frank, 29, a Navy veteran and petroleum engineering senior from Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Philanthropic outreach factored into LSU's group being selected as the nation's top chapter.
The chapter's primary philanthropy is Garfield House, a transition home for veterans who are homeless or trying to recover from substance abuse and other hardships. About 40 student veterans cleaned the grounds, pressure-washed the building and cleaned out the Garfield House garage last spring, then held a Thanksgiving dinner for the residents.
The group also held three fundraisers last year to raise money for Irreverent Warriors, a nonprofit organization that combats veteran suicide and tries to reduce the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The social interaction and service opportunities help veterans create bonds that make the college experience about more than just academics.
"I didn't feel comfortable yet joining a fraternity," Frank said. "I hadn't gotten into my major program, yet. I was still taking basic engineering courses, so I didn't know any professional organizations. So, I fell back into the longest-standing fraternity that exists, and that's the military. No matter what branch you were in, you're still accepted."
This article is written by George Morris from The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.