Vet group facing funding woes

A U organization for student veterans may have to cut some programming next school year.

Student Veterans Association members enjoy pizza as a part of the student group's Friday lunch tradition in Johnston Hall. The Student Services Fees Committee's initial recommendation for the group cuts some of its budget for the weekly meeting.

Liam James Doyle

Student Veterans Association members enjoy pizza as a part of the student group’s Friday lunch tradition in Johnston Hall. The Student Services Fees Committee’s initial recommendation for the group cuts some of its budget for the weekly meeting.

Parker Lemke

Student veterans assembled in the Veterans Transition Center last Friday to chat over pizza slices, while others plopped down on sofas to watch a Starship Troopers flick.

Each week, the Student Veterans Association hosts the get-togethers in its meeting space as part of its mission to help veterans transition into campus civilian life and improve their graduation rates through peer support.

“We’ve all gone through similar things,” said group outreach coordinator and Army veteran Matthew Grimm, adding that members, many of whom have been in combat overseas, can support each other with a shared culture. “It’s [about] finding that niche that you fit in.”

But next school year, the student group might have to cut back on its gatherings if the Student Services Fees Committee maintains its initial funding recommendation. Last month, the funds-allocating committee recommended SVA receive less than half of its more than $25,000 request, and more than $3,300 less than its total funding last year.

Under the current funding recommendation, SVA’s Friday meetings could either become significantly smaller or switch to a bimonthly schedule, said the group’s president and Marine Corps veteran Nick Jensen.

“This semester, we’re just kind of in retract mode trying to prepare for next year,” he said.

In its initial recommendation document, the fees committee said a number of the group’s proposed budget expenses were not central to their purposes or too heavily based on attendance. Among other items, the committee proposed deductions for the group’s Friday pizza events and printing and copying supplies.

Offering free printing to members has kept veterans coming back to the group, Jensen said, where they benefit from peer support they might not seek out otherwise.

“I don’t want to say we’re all loners, in a way. We just have a hard time trying to connect and reach out sometimes,” he said. “Call it pride or something.”

Often, student veterans lose their social networks after spending a long time in the military, Grimm said. The age difference between them and their classroom peers can make them feel out of place, he said.

“I graduated high school 20 years ago,” said Surene Henderson, a microbiology student and former Army medic, who comes to the SVA room to study. “This is the only place that’s actually comfortable for me.”

Going from a highly regimented military lifestyle to one with free time and a need to plan personal schedules can also prove challenging, Jensen said.

A 2014 Student Veterans of America study found that only about half of the veterans who signed up to use the GI Bill to support their education between 2002 and 2010 earned a postsecondary degree or certificate.

Katy Strub, an outreach coordinator for Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, a grant-funded program under the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, works with the student group.

Most campuses she serves have a transition center that helps connect veterans with other former service members, Strub said, which can help veterans overcome challenges, including those that stem from physical and mental health adjustments.

“We see a lot of concerns with sleep, concentration [and] memory,” she said.

Strub said student veterans also have advantages — like broader life experiences, education benefits and housing stipends — that help them go back to school.

On campus, University Veterans Services provides counseling, helps veterans file for benefits and connects them with other resources.

The school’s Veterans Advisory Committee, which advocates for student veteran support, also facilitates discussions between departments that directly affect veterans and their families.

Located in the basement floor of Johnston Hall, the SVA provides a social space for veterans to study, watch movies, share basic training stories or play Cards Against Humanity, among other things, Grimm said.

Air Force veteran Bernard Williams said his three-person writing group — which includes two non-veterans — often meets in the Johnston Hall room.

He said he expected to stay in the service for four years to pay for college when he signed up in 1985. Instead, he ended up building a career that took him to countries around the world. He served in both wars in Iraq before hanging up his desert fatigues in 2012.

Now a 51-year-old education policy and leadership doctoral student, Williams said the SVA has helped him settle into life at the University.

“I never really felt out of place,” he said. “In the military, we learned to adapt and form a team unity, and I find that that continues here.”

SVA president Jensen said the group is trying to secure a second location on the West Bank or a larger space in Johnston to accommodate more veterans.

It’s also trying to grow its number of officers, Grimm said, after many of its past leaders have graduated.

“We’ve been trying a lot of different techniques over the last year to increase awareness of our group,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to continue those practices without the funds.”