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Services for veterans equal higher grad rates

Only 3 percent of veterans who started a four-year degree finished it in 1995, but that number has been rising and was up to 30 percent in 2001, according to the Department of Education.

The rising graduation rate reflects a trend of universities providing more services for veterans, USF Veteran Affairs Coordinator Meredith Nickles said.

The University hosted a total of 635 veterans this semester. USF’s Veterans Affairs Office – which employs advisors to help veterans with their paperwork and class selections – also produces a newsletter for students. USF is unique because not all universities have a separate veterans affairs office, Nickles said.

“Vets are a unique population: Services can help them readjust back into society,” Nickles said.

Nickles said that in order to receive education benefits, veterans have to put $1,200 into an education program. The government covers the entire tuition of those who receive a purple heart in combat or become disabled.

“It used to be that they would just receive the funds for serving in the military,” Nickles said.

The University’s VA Office is located inside the Counseling Center, which offers resources for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other stress-related issues. An Army survey revealed that one in eight veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has some form of PTSD.

“When talking to them (veterans), they open up and then we can tell what other services might be needed,” Nickles said.

Adjusting to civilian life can be an isolating process for veterans, Nickles said. In active service, they form tight bonds and the loss of these can lead to depression.

The VA also offers peer advising, in which students can receive academic assistance and speak with veterans who have been through similar situations, Nickles said.

Nickles said the VA Office is putting together an e-mail Listserv to allow members to receive information quicker.

Military students value the services provided by the VA Office.

Michelle Barnes was active in the Air Force for eight years before coming to USF as a graduate student in speech therapy. Barnes credits the VA Office with helping her complete the necessary paperwork to study at USF and acquire a work-study position in the office.

Now, she helps others with their paperwork. The job works well for her, allowing her focus on her class work and raise her 8-year-old daughter, she said.

“It’s important that vets are able to receive an education to better their lives,” said veteran Lucy Puentes, a junior physical education major.

Puentes is part of the VA work-study program. She came to USF in September from California, where she worked with aircraft carriers. The VA Office helped her start her education at USF, she said.

Puentes said she hopes USF will provide more programs, such as ones that focus on military women.

“If we could do more, we would,” Nickles said when asked about special programs for veterans on campus.

The VA program is funded by Student Government.

“Everything is looked at very carefully, as far as spending money goes. If it’s something in our budget, we will certainly try it,” she said.

With the recent budget cuts and the University trying to shut down some programs on campus, it is unlikely that any new programs will develop in the near future, Nickles said.