USF looks to improve veterans services

University officials are looking to create plans that will improve the help for students who served in the armed forces.

New strategies for assisting student veterans in their college transition were discussed during a daylong conference on campus Friday.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Gov. Charlie Crist and more than 300 college and university officials attended the Uniforms to Mortarboards conference in the Marshall Student Center.

Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Tyree, who helped organize the conference, said she hopes higher education institutions in Florida will better serve student veterans.

Within the next two weeks, the University will begin interviewing candidates for the director of Veterans Services position, Tyree said.

“I am very hopeful that that person will create our vision and provide the leadership for new initiatives,” she said.

Tyree said the new director will be responsible for connecting and providing more support for the veterans services available at USF’s regional campuses.

Other roles for the new director include further developing the University’s relationship with local military organizations and community colleges in regards to student veterans, she said.

Tryree said she expects the director of Veterans Services to begin working in early spring.

During the conference, University officials discussed the possibility of developing a course for student veterans similar to the freshman-level University Experience course, Tyree said.

“We have talked about a career course for veterans, but we haven’t really talked about a transition course for veterans,” she said. “I think that’s one idea that would be easy for us to do in a lot of ways because we already have the model of the University Experience course.”

Tyree said administrators also discussed implementing educational programs for the entire campus. The goal of the program would be to inform students and faculty of the veteran experience so that they can better understand it, she said.

“I think we would benefit from just doing some broad-spread education for our campus community to help it be a more engaging place,” Tyree said.

The conference featured a panel of student veterans, strategizing workshops and several speakers.

At the conference, Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki, said he wants student veterans to take advantage of their educational opportunity and help those who follow them.

“In the coming years, men and women, some of whom are still in combat zones today, will attend USF and other colleges and universities, following in your footsteps,” he said. “Prepare the way for them … make them as successful as I know you’re going to be.”

Conference attendees discussed methods for implementing the new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides veterans who served active duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, with funding for full tuition and fees, books, supplies and housing.

Though the bill was passed Aug. 1, some student veterans have not received their payments.

The VA is working to solve this problem by automating its paper-bound filing process, Shinseki said. He apologized for the delay.

“We’re going as fast as we can,” Shinseki said. “We’re playing catch up and we know it.”

Shinseki said one of his goals is to support student veterans in their transition and increase graduation rates.

“Unless you all graduate on schedule, there is no payoff for the country,” Shinseki said to the student veterans. “We need your talent, we need your energy, we need your discipline – your dedication back at work for the nation soon.”

Crist made an appearance at the conference to show his support of the initiatives assisting student veterans.

“I am enormously proud that this partnership with veterans and our state universities is doing so much for the people who deserve it,” Crist said. “We all owe each and every one of you a great debt of gratitude for what you have done to keep us safe and to keep us free.”

According to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA), USF enrolled approximately 920 student veterans, including spouses and dependents, as of October 2009.

Last year, approximately 710 student veterans enrolled at USF, according to FDVA.

USF President Judy Genshaft said she hoped the conference would help universities decide which methods work best for assisting student veterans.

“It’s all about making a difference through education,” Genshaft said. “We have so many fabulous, capable people coming back from active duty and we want to be there for them, making a difference in their lives.”