A Conversation about Student Veterans: Succeeding and in Transition

Following more than two decades of simultaneous wars, Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, a war weary nation struggles to assimilate and help return the lives of its citizen soldiers who served some sense of normalcy.However, for many such veterans, normalcy as a civilian will never be normal again. Consequently, much of the rhetoric and research of late about veterans lie in their pathology and so overly emphasize the ever present adjustment maladies that confront them. While this situation is indeed the reality for many veterans, other veterans are discovering wayssoldier-vet-military-student to overcome but not forget these life altering experiences in the form of service before self that have changed them forever. This can do attitude and stiff upper lip mode of going about the business of the day that characterize veterans at large but for which many are blamed for not seeking assistance when they need to are the very traits that serve them well in the long run when they encounter insurmountable challenges. In higher education, as in other venues, veterans are making herculean strides to reclaim their existence by completing their education.

The Veterans Resource Center (VRC), for instance, has become one of the many resources to which student veterans at Portland State University (PSU) have come to rely on as a respite. The outgrowth of a fledgling idea by a concerned group of veterans at PSU, one of whom included this author who served as its principal investigator, met multiple times and clandestinely so off campus to determine how to go about launching what was then framed as the Student Veterans Service Office (SVSO). The group, known as the Veterans Resource Center Task Force, produced data that eventually moved the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA) to fund its SVSO as a pilot for the first year of its existence and hired an SVSO representative for outreach to student veterans on campus.

With an additional push from then Governor Theodore “Ted” Kulongoski (D-OR), a similar task force was formed, this time at the state-wide level. Under Governor Kulongoski, PSU’s SVSO served as the model that facilitated the passing of House Bill (HB) 2178 during the 2009 legislative session (HB 2178, February 2009). The Bill, which became effective January 1, 2010, mandated that institutions of higher learning in Oregon or the 17 community colleges and seven regional state universities within the Oregon University System (OUS), must develop outreach educational services via veterans’ service officers at each institution. Additionally, a Veterans Program Manager by way of the ODVA must be employed to oversee the statewide program. On August 19, 2009, along with a cadre of state officials including Governor Kulongoski and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki visited PSU to highlight the new federal G.I. Bill. Of note though for its founders was that PSU’s then SVSO served as the prototype for the federal government’s new G.I. Bill which also required institutions around the country that received federal funding to establish veterans service centers to serve student veterans.

Today, the VRC at PSU stavrcnds as the beneficiary of this cumulative effort over the years to specifically address the educational needs of some 965 veterans who are matriculated as students throughout the University (PSU Veterans Certification Office). PSU is therefore poised to regain its legacy as an institution for returning veterans in Oregon.

The upcoming panel entitled A Conversation for Student Veterans: Succeeding and in Transition is one such event that will feature an all military veterans panel that includes former Governor Kulongoski; faculty Dr. Rita Finn Sumner; Ph.D. student and graduate assistant at the VRC Maria Gonzalez-Prats; PSU alumnus Pamela Campos who has a B.A. in Political Science; and Waylan Munson, an undergraduate student within the Division of Political Science; with this author, who will serve as the event’s moderator.

The event is scheduled to be held on Thursday, May 22, 2014 in the College and Public Affairs, Distance Learning Center, Room 204 ITC, second floor and is being sponsored by various student groups including the public administration student association (PASA) and the PSU student chapter of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the VRC and financing from the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. The primary purpose of this event is to dispel the often attributed messages of pathology about veterans who are indeed succeeding in many ways as they transition into civilian life, one of which includes as students at PSU.

By Dr. G.L.A. Harris,
Associate Professor
Mark O. Hatfield School of Government

Oregon Legislative Assembly. Summary of Legislation 2009. House Bill (HB) 2178. Portland State University, Veterans Certification Office