From serving to studying, student veterans learn to adjust
Almost a year after its inception, the Veteran’s Resource Center in the basement of Student Services remains dormant. There’s a few chairs arranged in a circle near a patriotic mural on a wall, but no phones ringing with inquiries regarding student veteran life, and no employees to answer them.
Although it might not be much now, animal science junior and Michigan National Guard veteran Nick Babcock said he has high hopes for the resource center and the university when it comes to meeting the needs of student veterans.
“The university is better than they were last year,” Babcock said. “There’s been a lot of things the institution has incorporated. Even just trying to figure out how many veterans are on campus is a step forward.”
Currently, MSU can only track students who use GI bill benefits, which can be used by children or spouses of veterans. With optional reporting, Babcock said MSU is trying to gauge just how many veterans are on campus.
The next step Babcock would like to see is a full-time resource officer in the center, who could help answer questions and guide student veterans at MSU.
“A resource officer in here would be great so we can have a place where incoming veterans or people who would like to be a part of MSU can call and talk to someone,” Babcock said. “The first thing we had to do was get the room established. They’re making progress, even the furniture wasn’t in here until two months ago. It gives us a base of operations.”
Babcock, who is also the president of MSU Student Veterans of America, said even though the center is largely symbolic at this stage, he hopes it can bring together more student veterans in the future.
One of the reasons he joined the organization was so he could have some questions answered about college life.
“(The) biggest thing for me was involvement, to connect with other veterans especially as a resource aspect, because so many of us go through the same trials and tribulations that it is a little bit easier when you can talk to someone who has already been through it,” he said.
The biggest challenge can be fitting in with a younger population of students when most veterans are well into their adulthood, Babcock said. Babcock himself is 34, and has a family of his own.
“For a lot of vets, it can be the integration aspect (that is difficult) — being at a different point in your life where you’re not in the 18- to 21-year-old bracket,” he said. “I know a lot of people in our group have kids and a spouse and things like that. It changes the dynamic of how you have to prepare and study for tests, but also how you conduct your daily life.”
Celebrating Veterans Day
Every year, MSU’s Department of Military Science holds multiple events to honor veterans who served and instill a sense of pride in cadets and MSU students training to enter the military, Department of Military Science Chairman Jeffrey Winston said.
One of the biggest and most attended events is held at the MSU Alumni Chapel , where a color guard is present for a flag-folding ceremony.
“We explain what each fold means and it goes alone with the Alumni Memorial Chapel, which was built for service members that were MSU students or alumni and died in service,” Winston said.
In addition, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps students visit local retirement communities to hold flag-folding ceremonies of their own, allowing older veterans a chance to share their stories.
“The elderly people love it,” military science instructor Wallace Doss said. “It gives the cadets a sense of pride in their nation and helps them realize what they are getting ready to come into.”
The Lansing area also encourages veterans to interact with ROTC cadets by holding a breakfast at the Pattengill Academy , where the color guard performs for area veterans.
“I always tell them, ‘you only get one try to do a color guard. You don’t get a second chance,’” Doss said of the importance of the military ceremonies.
Doss said these events help to connect older veterans to younger students and veterans, and helps foster a sense of community among them.
From service to studying, and back again
International relations senior Adam Grajewski began his college career at MSU, served five years in the Marine Corps and has now returned to finish out his final year before heading to law school.
The transition had its fair share of difficulties, but Grajewski said his decision to serve was one that changed his life for the better.
“I wasn’t happy with the way my life was going, with my academic performance, and I felt like I was under-achieving,” he said. “Going into the military was something I did because I needed a sense of direction, needed a kick in the behind.”
Grajewski was stationed in Camp Pendleton, Calif. , and served two deployments — one to a naval ship traveling through Southeast Asia, and a second in Afghanistan.
After returning to MSU, Grajewski said adjusting to the diversity of campus took some time.
“Age is the first one that comes to mind (in terms of differences),” he said. “I’m a little older than all my classmates. There’s also the diversity of viewpoints. In the military they break you down and build you up in the way they want you to be. People there have similar political views, due to the nature and interactions and training. Here, diversity of opinion is valued much more and it’s refreshing.”
Grajewski said he took extra steps to integrate himself into campus life, such as becoming an intercultural aide and being a student liaison on the MSU Board of Trustees.
Mentally, adjusting his way of thinking to college life was difficult as well.
“Especially from being in combat, stress and anxiety can be hard to deal with,” Grajewski said. “In exams, I try not to stress about menial things and get way too worked up over it. Being in life and death situations put things into perspective, I can’t put that much pressure on myself.”
Besides helping veterans make the transition to student life, MSU also plays host to programs that help veterans get back into the workforce after service.
Acting Associate Director of the Institute of Agricultural Technology Agriculture Tom Smith has helped to pioneer MSU’s Vets to Ag Program, which focuses on getting homeless veterans off the streets and into the workforce.
The program, born in 2009 , has helped dozens of veterans gain job skills and certifications in agricultural industries. Currently, Smith is overseeing a program that has trained veterans to work in Department of Natural Resources related fields. There are nine veterans in the program who have 62 years of service to their country between them, Smith said.
“We owe it to our veterans,” Smith said. “I think it’s a great role for the land-grant university to take on this challenge. From an economic standpoint, people who are working to support themselves and their family are far better off than being dependent. They don’t want to be dependent.”
Smith said many of the veterans he works with have had a rough time making the leap back into employment. While the veterans are skilled, they find it difficult translating military skills to the private sector, Smith said.
“This is a really important issue, and it’s also a legacy to my relatives,” Smith said. “My father served in World War II, and I learned about the sacrifices he went through — he was expected to come home after combat and start supporting the family. I’ve gotten to know these veterans and how bright and motivated they are and how they are looking to, in many cases, turn their lives around. This program helps them do that.”