Connecticut Provides An Oasis for Veterans
As a Vietnam veteran, Linda Schwartz saw firsthand the difficulties returning service members faced when re-entering civilian life.
As the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Veterans' Affairs, Schwartz had one goal with regard to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “I wanted to do better by the folks coming home today,” she said.
Thus was born the Oasis Centers in Connecticut, an East regional winner of The Council of State Governments’ 2012 Innovations Award.
The state Department of Veterans' Affairs held a Summit for Returning Veterans in 2003 to assess the needs of veterans in areas such as health care, transition, families, and education and employment. Many of the 200 veterans in attendance acknowledged having problems acclimating to college or university life. In many cases, veterans on Connecticut’s campuses didn’t even know who other veterans were.
“People like to spend time with people who understand what they’ve been through or who have shared similar experiences, … and veterans are no exception,” said Cathryn L. Addy, president of Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Conn. “In some cases, it might be even more important … because of the extreme nature of what they would have experienced.”
The centers, said Schwartz, provide space for veterans to gather, to study and to meet with counselors or others with whom they need to meet regularly. Every public college and university in the state has an Oasis center. Costs were minimal, and groups such as women’s clubs and local veterans’ organizations donated supplies and furniture; colleges and universities donated space.
Chris Gutierrez, veterans’ affairs coordinator for Central Connecticut State University, which opened the first center in 2008, has an office near the Veterans’ Drop-in Center at the university. He and other staff members—including a VA certifying official and a mental health clinician from the university—try to bring services to the more than 400 student veterans at the university.
Gutierrez said the center has brought in other resources to help veterans. For instance, department of labor officials came in to talk with veterans about building their resumes and how to be successful in a job interview.
The Oasis centers, which go by different names at different colleges and universities, target how to help student veterans succeed, Schwartz said.
“Here are these young men and women who have made the commitment to serve the nation and they deserve the best opportunity to succeed in school,” she said.
Some 2 million service members are eligible for GI Bill funding, and the U.S. has spent $19 billion in the past four years on educating veterans. But, Schwartz said, only 18 percent of returning veterans nationwide successfully graduate from a college or university.
A big part of that success rate, she said, is the support veterans get while attending school.
“One of the things I have picked up on with this younger generation is that they really care about each other and they want to succeed,” she said.
The Oasis centers on the college campuses, she said, allow them to “help each other make it through the new reality of making it through school.”
Tunxis Community College has seen the success of the program and has expanded to meet the needs of those student veterans. Addy said university administrators made the decision to more than triple the size of the center.
“It has proven to be a very popular spot because of the veterans who are in school and who utilize this space,” said Addy. “It also has given them an identity they might not otherwise have.”
Other students are aware of the center and respect it, Addy said. In fact, the student government association decided to make the renovation of the center their class give for 2012.
“It is to recognize their unique status as citizens and as students returning to college after, in many cases, what has been a difficult few years in their lives,” Addy said.
She said the focus on veterans as a special group has raised the awareness of everyone about the needs of veterans.
“It’s been very important for the college community to admit this special group of people, not only to celebrate it but to say we need to pay attention because there may be some things here that we’re just not aware of,” Addy said.
Schwartz said the centers have helped veterans cope with many issues, and not just those related to returning to the classroom.
“Some were having issues with what were actually symptoms of traumatic brain injury, difficulty concentrating in class and not feeling like they were successful,” she said.
Some didn’t feel comfortable or felt isolated in the academic environment. The Oasis centers give veterans a place to gather with people who have had a common experience and common set of values, Schwartz said. It’s kind of like the way Greek life allows other college students to have a common bond.
“When you think about it, our United States military is the largest honor society in America because they all have made that commitment to serve in our nation,” she said.
As a plus for the community college or university, Schwartz said, the centers show they care.
“It’s like a welcome mat for veterans,” she said.