Connecting Veterans With Community

10 smiling people pose for a group photo on top of a mountain

When Rahsaan Reed left the U.S. Army after seven years of service, he wasn’t sure what was next.

“I had a few jobs after I left the military, but I knew all along I wanted to continue my education,” he says. After he received an email from the Jenkins MBA program, he started considering how that program — and NC State — might fit into his future.

“I had attended NC State for undergrad in sociology and participated in ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps], so I knew it was a great place to be,” Reed says.

Rahsaan Reed
Rahsaan Reed

But for Reed and other veterans, finding their way to and through college can be a daunting process. They face unique challenges, including navigating often-complex paperwork and requirements related to their Veterans Affairs and GI Bill benefits, adjusting to the transition from a rigid military environment to more independent civilian life, and dealing with emotional and physical trauma related to their service.

NC State is working to make these burdens less overwhelming and open doors for veterans to attend the university — and to equip them to make the most of their education once they’re here.

“Our goal is to provide the support needed to ensure success in the classroom, as well as assistance in preparing for next steps beyond NC State,” says Lisa Zapata, interim vice chancellor and dean for the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. “Less than 1% of our population makes the extraordinary commitment to serve our country, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.”

A One-Stop Shop

NC State has a rich history of celebrating military service and welcoming service members and veterans. The university established a military science program soon after its founding, in 1894. Its robust Air Force, Army and Naval ROTC programs are all over a half-century old and have graduated thousands of military officers, including more than 60 generals and flag officers.

In recent years, NC State has focused on building up its services for students who are active-duty military and veterans. In 2016, the university established the Military and Veteran Services office within the Division of Academic and Student Affairs to support these populations, as well as children, spouses and other dependents of military service members and faculty and staff who are veterans.

“We aim to support the whole student,” says Juliann Kasza, coordinator of Military and Veteran Services. The office does so by helping student veterans and military-connected students easily access academic and personal counseling, career services, events and networking opportunities.

The office’s space in Witherspoon Student Center is the hub for all this activity. On a typical day in Suite 100, students might attend Counseling Center, Disability Services or Career Services office hours; chat with staff about a class project; or grab a cup of coffee and settle in at a table to work on homework.

Many will also stop in the office of Daniel Hackley, the university’s veterans certifying official. Hackley’s job is to help students figure out their veterans education benefits and how to maximize them. He also helps students who are on active duty or in the reserves navigate withdrawing from classes if they’re deployed and figuring out how to reenroll once they’re home.

Hackley says the services the office brings together make it easier for students to find what they need. “We want to be an open source of support and communication where these students can express their concerns, either personal or academic,” Hackley says.

Hackley understands many of these struggles himself — he’s an Army veteran who got his bachelor’s degree from NC State in 2015. And Director of Military and Veteran Services Nick Drake is currently deployed overseas with the North Carolina Army National Guard.

“Having been in these students’ shoes helps us and the student veterans relate to each other,” Hackley says. “It also helps us figure out what might or might not work in terms of programming.”

“Daniel and Nick and the Military and Veteran Services staff have been essential to making my college experience smoother,” says Heather Akers, a graduate student in social work and an enlisted officer in the U.S. Army.

“I am 100% a student here because of Military and Veteran Services,” Reed agrees.

Building Supportive Networks

A big part of feeling at home in a place is finding others who understand your experiences.

Akers, who is from a military family in Fort Bragg, N.C., knows the value of connecting with others who know the demands of military life. “It can be really hard to go from active duty into school,” she says. “Many of us have different life experiences, and trying to integrate where we know we’re different can be difficult.”

Heather Akers
Heather Akers

Akers helps other student veterans find community through her work as the president of the Student Veterans Association. The group hosts social, service and family-oriented events to help student veterans, their families and other military-connected students find camaraderie on campus.

“We want the group to make a significant change in student veterans’ lives,” Akers says. “They can come in and feel welcome and have the support they need to transition into a college environment.”

Part of the Military and Veteran Services staff’s charge is to help build this community for students on the campus at large. Its Green Zone training, open to all faculty, staff and students, introduces some of the challenges facing student service members and veterans and their families, as well as resources that can help others better support them. Around 100 members of the NC State community attend this training per year.

“A lot of faculty and staff care about the military here and are trying to find ways to better support them,” Kasza says.

Campus Celebrations

“Our campus community truly benefits from the experiences, dedication and wisdom of our student veterans,” Zapata said. “On Veterans Day and every day, we thank them for serving our nation and for choosing to be a part of NC State.”

To celebrate this service and sacrifice as a university, NC State Athletics hosts Military Appreciation Days at athletic events throughout the year, including the annual Military Appreciation Day football game. And on or around Veterans Day each year, members of the campus community gather before the sun rises for a two-mile Veterans Day Run around campus, which is followed by a ceremony honoring veterans.

Military and Veteran Services also holds graduation celebrations each fall and spring to honor graduating student service members and veterans and their families, which are open to the campus. “One of the highlights of each semester is this time to come together as a community to celebrate our students’ achievements,” Kasza says.

Both Akers and Reed say that this supportive community has been key to their experience at NC State. “Being a part of NC State and this veterans community has been a wonderful experience,” Akers says. “I’d recommend it to anyone.”

Reed agrees. “The staff here really takes the time to reach out to people and bring them in to talk with them and support them. It’s a great place to come.”

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