A national pilot program at SIUC will help support student veterans as they return to college life after serving in the armed forces.
The university has partnered with the VA Medical Center in Marion as one of the few universities to participate in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ initiative program called Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership, also known as VITAL. The program helps transition student veterans into college and on to future success.
Preston Mathis, a junior from Shipman studying mechanical engineering, said the VITAL program would have been helpful to him when he transitioned back into the college atmosphere.
“When leaving active duty in 2009, I found it difficult to adapt back into civilian life, let alone a college-orientated environment,” Mathis said. “I had a lot of trouble making friends and finding help around campus.”
Mathis was enlisted in the United States Navy from June 2005 until June 2009, during which he was stationed on the USS Harry S. Truman CVN-75 Aircraft Carrier as an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Petty Officer.
The goal of VITAL is to assure veterans receive adequate support to help them succeed in college careers and to provide them with information and access to programs and resources available through the VA, said Thomas J. Kadela, section chief for the Marion VA Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Specialty Clinic Programs, in a University Communications press release May 25.
Mathis also volunteered on an Individual Augmentee Ballot during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2007 and served an eight-month deployment to Jalalabad, Afghanistan to help construct an air base before returning to the USS Harry S. Truman to finish his enlistment.
He said after returning to civilian life, it was difficult to communicate with people about military procedures, everyday life and experiences since many have never witnessed it.
The VITAL grant provides funding for two full-time VA positions at the university, which will allow for individual, group, or family services such as counseling, crisis intervention, wellness recovery plans and referring veterans to other available services, according to the May 25 press release.
The program will employ a social worker or counselor, who also will lead training seminars in educating faculty and staff about veterans and a peer support specialist, who will be someone with military and mental health experience.
Mathis said the VITAL program is a great way for institutions to begin to better understand how to help veterans begin their educational experience.
“Having qualified veterans affairs representatives on campus allows for the institutions, as well as the community, to acclimate new incoming service members into their educational program,” Mathis said.
Kadela said hiring a peer support specialist is crucial as he or she will be able to share experiences with the veterans, connect with them on a personal level and help them realize there is help, hope and the ability to regain a fulfilling life.
Last year, five campuses adopted this program and with its success, have passed the torch onto 15 higher education institutions this year.
The university is one of 20 institutions selected for the program and is teamed with the University of Illinois-Chicago, City College of San Francisco and University of Utah/Salt Lake Community College/Weber State University.
The Veterans Resource Center, a unit of Student Life and Intercultural Relations, already exists at the university and will host the VITAL program, according to the press release.
John J. Benshoff, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, said in the press release the program will expand SIUC’s opportunities to provide service to veterans, offer a great collaboration between the university and VA and will have a significant impact on the lives of veterans that come to SIUC.
Mathis said making services through programs such as VITAL more accessible will provide a more comfortable atmosphere for incoming veterans to participate in.
He said he believes VITAL will change the way veterans perceive their first semester back to school and efforts in advertising the program is vital at new student orientations and around campus.
D. Shane Koch, associate dean for Academics and Student Affairs of the College of Education and Human Services, said he considers the program a big win for veterans, the university and the community.
“It is a huge testimony to SIUC and our commitment to veterans that we are one of a small group of quality universities participating in this cutting edge program,” he said.
Mathis also agreed the program is a great opportunity for SIUC and future Saluki veterans alike.
“The opportunity to engage with other veterans, whether they are fellow students or even instructors, is a big stepping stone to feeling more comfortable on campus,” Mathis said.