Outlook

Warrior to civilian

Saturday, June 27, 2009

St. Cloud State Veterans Resource Center

On May 1, the day the new VA education benefits took effect, student veterans flocked to the St. Cloud State Veterans Resource Center for help signing up. At the computer in the foreground is Jonathan Utecht, sophomore environmental science major from Cold Spring. Others are, from left: Joshua John, senior criminal justice major from St. Cloud; Christopher Strong ‘09, then-senior history major from Maple Grove; and Jennifer Lais, a Big Lake native who’s pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in nursing. At far right is James McAuley, Central Regional Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. The new benefits include money for housing and books, in addition to tuition.

When U.S. Air Force veteran Chris Strong enrolled at St. Cloud State in fall 2006, he discovered that military life – which included a stint in Iraq – had a strikingly different rhythm and feel than student life. His adjustment began as a lonely challenge.

“It’s a nerve-wracking scenario at first, coming from a place where you’ve often been in life-and-death situations, and going into a civilian environment,” Strong said. “It’s important to stay in touch with others who’ve been in the military who understand what you’re going through.

Through the doorway are a comfortable lounge area, a study room with desks and computers, and a support office where mentoring and help with benefits and other paperwork are dispensed. The Center is a highly visible symbol of the level of support the University demonstrates for Minnesota veterans and their families.

When Strong arrived on campus, St. Cloud State didn’t have an established student veteran resource center to ease the warrior-to-civilian reintegration for students like him. There was no place to go to hang out with fellow veterans and seek support and advice about the challenges of building a life with civilian friends and family.

All that changed before the end of Strong’s first year at St. Cloud State. When Central Regional Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs James McAuley entered the picture in August 2006, his presence and a core group of committed students led by Strong helped launch what is now an invaluable one-stop shop for veterans and their families.

McCauley, a Brooklyn native and U.S. Air Force veteran, works three days a week with St. Cloud State administration, faculty and staff to help make the warrior-to-student transition as smooth as possible by identifying barriers and helping put students in touch with benefits and means of support – everything from employment to financial workshops. He also works with student veterans at St. Cloud Technical College, Central Lakes College, the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John’s University and other regional colleges. The VA certifying official is at the center eight hours a week to help with registration and scheduling questions.

St. Cloud State has become a magnet for degree-seeking veterans and their families. From 2006-08 St. Cloud State had a 10 percent increase in the number of students using VA education benefits. Because of stronger new benefits, the struggling economy and the outstanding support the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) offer veterans, the VA projects there will be a 20 percent increase in those using benefits in the next couple of years.

St. Cloud State has the largest student veteran population among the 32 MnSCU institutions. “The board of trustees, the chancellor and the leadership of MnSCU have consistently supported efforts to establish and support the policies and procedures necessary for our campuses to be able to create a veteran-friendly learning environment,” said Steven Frantz, system director, division of student affairs for MnSCU and a frequent speaker and advocate for student veterans at regional and national conferences.

That welcoming environment is vital for student veterans and their families to succeed, McAuley said. “They need a place where they can go for conversation and connection.”

It took a while for that place to evolve at St. Cloud State. “Those early days were rough,” Strong said. “We were in an 8-foot by 7-foot room. If there were three in there, there were too many.”

When President Earl H. Potter III, a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, came in July 2007, one of his first actions was to appoint a task force of administrators, faculty, staff and student veterans to study and report on what resources exist and what more are needed to support the educational and personal needs of our student veterans. Within a year St. Cloud State’s veterans had a new, more spacious center and a growing network of advocates on campus.

“Our student veterans bring important assets to our campus community,” Potter said. “They come to us as leaders, with confidence and maturity. We’re fortunate to have them, and I’m committed to building the resources that will make the most of the character and wisdom they have developed in service to their country.”

Now the Center is getting a lot of attention from other college campuses sharing the influx of student-veteran enrollees. “A lot of people are calling now from all over the country, from California to Florida, wanting to replicate our program,” McAuley said. “They find out through word of mouth and conferences.”

When Strong came to St. Cloud State, he had little in common with most of his fellow students. He’d enlisted just after his graduation from Maple Grove Senior High School in 2001, and life for him in the post-9/11 military was a far cry from the lifestyle of the students sitting next to him in most of his classes. But with powerful allies in other student veterans, as well as MnSCU, St. Cloud State leadership and McAuley, he helped create a center that’s become a model program for the nation.

At St. Cloud State, he has gotten the preparation he needed to successfully make the transition first from airman to student, then student to businessman. Before graduating with a major in history and minor in computer networking and application this May, Strong secured a job in Fargo as a technical account manager for Microsoft. It’s another major transition, but one he’s ready and eager to make.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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