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North Hills Monthly

Local Colleges and Universities Helping Veterans Transition to Academic Life

Sep 30, 2018 05:56PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Duquesne University Veterans Center veteran Mark Smith. Photo by Robert Woodside

Connor Green knew he that was going to serve in the Army after he graduated from Hampton High School in 2011. But he also knew that he wanted to eventually go to college.

“I wanted to pursue a degree in secondary education, and I had earned benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill,” he said. Now 25, the Sharpsburg resident is a junior at Duquesne University.

Like many veterans, Green decided to take advantage of these benefits. After serving in the Army for 3-1/2 years, including a stint in Afghanistan, Duquesne was appealing to Green for many reasons.

“My grandfather went to Duquesne after returning from WWII. Ironically, he met my grandmother at Duquesne who was pursing her degree in education,” he explained.

Green had friends at the University and was somewhat familiar with it. He also thought that the small class sizes would be good for him, and he appreciated the veteran support services that Duquesne offered.

“We have a wide variety of services, most importantly, transitional help for military and veteran students (MVS) leaving the military to begin their academic career on campus,” explained Don Accamando, director of the Office for Military and Veteran Students. “Many times, military and veteran student candidates are seeking guidance on where to begin the application process and a colleague who understands their unique needs. As a veteran myself, I am able to ‘speak the language,’ so to speak.”

About 2 percent of the student body, or roughly 200 “military affiliated students” as Accamando refers to them, attend Duquesne University. Accamando and his team assist this population.

This assistance starts with an explanation of Veterans Administration (VA) education benefits in the GI Bill, and includes the support of a VA certifying official as well as a VA work study representative. The university also has a Veteran’s Center on campus where veterans can go to study and relax.

Free counseling support is offered at the Military Services Clinic, and other services include advice for commuters, health services, and recreation at the Power Center gym, just to name a few. The MVS Office also schedules regular events such as an annual Veterans Breakfast in conjunction with the Veterans Leadership Program on Veterans Day; a veterans’ book club; military appreciation sporting events, and free legal advice.

For Green, Accamando not only helped him acclimate to university life by serving as his mentor—he also helped him find his service dog.

“I would not be where I am without him,” said Green of the retired veteran. “I had seizures after being discharged from the Army, and I shared my story with Don. He helped me connect with an organization that he is affiliated with known as Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans.” Green was matched with his service dog, Bradley, on Oct. 20, 2016.

La Roche College also works closely with their veteran population.

“We are dedicated to those who have served or are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. We welcome all veterans, military students and their dependents to begin or complete their education on campus or through online learning,” explained Coordinator of Veteran Services & Transfer Credit Denise Krah-Visconti.

Like Duquesne, La Roche assists veteran students from start to finish, beginning with the application process. They also provide support services throughout each student’s tenure. The college boasts a chapter of the national Student Veterans of America on the campus, which Krah-Visconti says is designed to provide a support system through mentoring and encouraging camaraderie and creating an inclusive and supportive environment. Veterans at La Roche also have a place to receive and share information.

La Roche participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, a joint program between the college and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to help veterans pay for their education. “This is a marvelous program; if students are eligible, the program covers the remaining cost of tuition and fees once the academic year benefit cap has been reached,” said Krah-Visconti. “And it is for graduate as well as undergraduate students.”

Clarion University’s Veteran Service Office also offers a wealth of programming for their more than 200 veteran students in both their on-campus and online undergraduate and graduate programs.

According to Director Dan Smith, these services include assistance with GI Bill and tuition processing, priority registration, transfer credit for military courses and experience, tutoring services, a local chapter of the Student Veterans of America which hosts meetings and informational speakers, disability services for accommodations, and in-state tuition (same rate for undergraduate and graduate courses) for all military students and their dependents.

“We felt it was very important to include dependents in these benefits because they are often overlooked,” Smith said.

Smith is particularly proud of a new program for Fall 2018 that involves a partnership between Clarion University and the Veterans Administration hospital in Butler. Once a month, a mental health counselor and an administrator from the VA will come to campus to assist military-affiliated students. The counselor will addresses mental health issues while the administrator assists with any other types of issues or problems.

“This is so important in helping our student veterans who are not getting any type of mental health services; this can break the ice,” Smith said.

He adds that the small, rural campus is a wonderful place for veteran students who want to ease into the college experience. “This is a safe, perfect place to transition back into civilian life,” he said.