Mason Supports Growing Student Veteran Population

Posted: October 26, 2009 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: October 23, 2009 at 3:42 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

President Barack Obama visited Mason for an event celebrating the passage of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which will pay college tuition for veterans who served since the attacks. With Obama are Staff Sgt. James Miller, who will attend Mason in the fall; Veterans Secretary Eric K. Shinseki; and Sen. Jim Webb, who introduced the legislation.Mason President Alan Merten and former Sen. John Warner also spoke.  Creative Services photo

President Barack Obama visited Mason in August for an event celebrating the passage of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which pays college tuition for veterans who served since the attacks. With Obama is Staff Sgt. James Miller, who is attending Mason. Former Sen. John Warner, at right, also spoke. Creative Services photo

When President Barack Obama visited Mason in August, he addressed 350 military veterans and advocates about the introduction of the new GI Bill that will help up to a quarter-million veterans pay for college tuition and related expenses.

With the new GI Bill, Mason’s current population of nearly 1,000 student veterans is expected to rise by as much as 25 percent. The university’s Office of Military Services is assisting this new group of active duty, reserve, National Guard and veteran students in adapting to collegiate life.

“As the student veteran population continues to grow, Mason understands that providing services to veterans is an area that needs additional attention,” says Michael Johnson, director of the Office of Military Services and a 17-year Marine Corps veteran.

“This diverse group of students has specialized needs, and the Office of Military Services strives to connect and support student veterans as they pursue their studies at Mason.”

Mason Recognized for Its Efforts

Since Johnson joined Mason in October 2008, he has made significant progress in creating a one-stop resource center for veterans and their families. Helping to reinforce the importance of Johnson’s efforts and emphasize Mason’s dedication to serving its student veterans, the university has received several awards and recognition.

Mason was recently awarded a Success for Veterans Award grant from the American Council of Education and the Wal-Mart Foundation. This $100,000 grant will help the Office of Military Services evolve into a comprehensive resource and support center to ensure academic, psychological and transition support for veterans.

Mike Johnson. Photo by Catherine Ferraro

Mike Johnson. Photo by Catherine Ferraro

For example, with this grant, Johnson was able to hire two new staff members. Jim Miller, transition assistance coordinator and eight-year Marine Corps veteran, will help students navigate college life. Linda McLaine, re-adjustment counselor, has been working with the military for the past 30 years on a variety of social work issues. She will help students deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional distress.

In addition, Mason joined more than 1,100 college and universities across the country in supporting veterans by joining the Yellow Ribbon Education Enhancement Program. The new initiative, which Mason is offering in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is aimed at expanding higher education funding for post-9/11 servicemen and women.

Mason’s Office of Military Services will provide tuition assistance to help up to 25 qualifying veterans who enroll as graduate students. These students will receive a $500 tuition discount from the university that will be matched by $500 from VA.

“We are very pleased to be a part of these initiatives and believe it speaks volumes about Mason’s commitment to our veteran population,” says Johnson. “We hope that ultimately Mason will provide guidance and serve as a resource and model for other institutions.”

Mason was also named by G.I. Jobs magazine as a “Military Friendly School for 2010.” According to the magazine, the list honors the top 15 percent of more than 7,000 colleges, universities and trade schools in the nation that are striving to embrace America’s veterans as students.

A Unique Group of Students

Often considered a singular population, student veterans are usually older and more likely to be married than traditional students. As reserve members, it’s not unlikely that they may be called up for deployment in the middle of the semester or return from combat with emotional issues.

Despite these challenges, Mason administrators agree that student veterans are an asset to the Mason community. Their unique experiences, says Johnson, offer alternative perspectives to faculty, staff and other students at the university and provide an opportunity for mutual learning and growth.

Jonathan Zapien, one of Mason’s student veterans instrumental in creating the Student Veterans Association chapter, agrees that having a strong student veteran population is important at any university.

“I’m a government major, and in most of my classes we discuss what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East,” says Zapien. “Having served two tours in Afghanistan, I’m able to offer a first-person perspective about my experiences and what is going on in these countries.”

Student Veterans Need More Than Money

While the new GI Bill will help alleviate financial worries for student veterans going back to school, many students have expressed the need for resource centers that help them become accustomed to the university atmosphere and deal with emotional issues.

In response to these concerns, Johnson and David Alpher, a graduate student and faculty member in Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, set up an informal peer counseling network for military students where they can share their experiences and engage in work-study programs.

Serving in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, Alpher worked with an organization called International Relief and Development on a community stabilization project to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs for people 17 to 25 years of age – often considered the “usual suspects” who join terrorist groups.

When he came to Mason, he understood that while there were many student veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, most students did not need formal counseling. According to Alpher, most student veterans just need help getting back into mainstream society.

With a push from Johnson, Zapien and Joshua Lawton-Belous, another founding member of Mason’s Student Veterans Association chapter, Alpher assembled a list of student veterans who were willing to be “on call” for other student veterans who just needed someone to talk to.

“It is important that the counseling network be very informal so students don’t feel like they are being evaluated by a psychiatrist,” says Alpher. “The counseling network is intended for students to be able to talk to someone to whom they don’t have to explain what they have been through. They need someone who understands everything about their experiences – how it looked, smelled and felt.”

Honoring Veterans Close to Home

Mason President Alan Merten tradtionally hosts the annual luncheon to honor Mason's veterans. Creative Services phioto

President Alan Merten traditionally hosts the annual luncheon to honor Mason's veterans. Creative Services photo

This Veterans Day, Mason President Alan Merten will continue the tradition of honoring all Mason community military veterans. The fifth annual Veterans Luncheon will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 11, from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall Lobby on the Fairfax Campus.

Retired Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, director of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Program in the School of Law, will give the keynote address. Before joining Mason, Kicklighter served as inspector general of the Department of Defense. In addition, he has served in several senior positions in the Departments of Defense, State and Veterans Affairs.

To RSVP to the event, contact Nathan Whitten at nwhitten@gmu.edu or 703-993-2709.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu