Auburn’s Veterans Resource Center supports student veterans, eases transition

Published: Jun 30, 2017
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It wasn't that long ago that Mike Patterson was an airman serving in Afghanistan. Life has definitely changed for the Boaz, Alabama, native now pursuing a degree in economics at Auburn University.

"If you had told me back then that I'd be spending my days going to class, studying and hanging out with other students at Auburn, I would've laughed and said you had the wrong guy," he said. "But that's what I'm doing now."

He might feel like an ordinary student, but compared to his classmates, the 29-year-old veteran is anything but typical. Nontraditional student veterans like Patterson face challenges as they transition from the battlefield to the classroom–challenges that can derail their educational and career goals. But there is help and hope.

Auburn University's Veterans Resource Center meets the unique needs of student veterans like Patterson who are not only older than traditional college students, but also may be balancing school with families, jobs and, for some, service-related trauma and disabilities.

"Our students just have a different life experience than their peers," said Paul "Puck" Esposito, Auburn's Veterans Resource Center director. "It's our job to bridge the gap between their military lives and their new lives as Auburn students."

The resource center provides veterans and family members with services such as VA certification for several federal GI Bill programs and other financial aid. However, the benefit Esposito praises the most is the sense of community the center provides for veterans who might struggle to find their place among traditional college students.

Centrally located in Foy Hall, the center also provides mentoring and customized tutoring for the student veteran population and the center soon plans to offer student veterans access to an onsite professional wardrobe closet and a textbook exchange.

More than 1,000 students currently utilize the Veterans Resource Center, including family members who have access to veterans' benefits. Esposito, a retired Navy captain and aviator, works to maintain the unique camaraderie found in military communities by creating a center that is more than just a place to complete paperwork and apply for benefits. With a 90 percent graduation rate among Auburn's student veterans, the holistic approach to meeting veterans' needs appears to be working.

Computer stations, study spaces, a lounge and kitchen area help create a center where veteran students can meet, study and collaborate with others who've shared similar life experiences. And for many veteran students, that's exactly what they need to thrive.

Patterson relies heavily on the Veterans Resource Center, describing it as his saving grace and the place he starts and ends most days.

"This place has been amazing," he said. "I didn't know how anything worked when I got to Auburn, and I don't like to ask for help. I tend to figure stuff out on my own. But I know I can ask for help or advice here. And I believe that taking advantage of the resources and seeing people with the same experiences and understanding have made me more successful."

A new mentoring program, the Veterans Success Program, is another way the resource center addresses the distinct needs of student veterans. In addition to $5,000 in scholarship funds, the veteran recipients are paired with alumni veteran mentors in their field of study. To aid in their transition to a civilian career, students participate in monthly activities ranging from professional etiquette and attire to résumé building and interviewing. Additionally, students attend "in-field" visits and job shadowing with their mentors to gain a better understanding of industries in real-world settings.

According to Meg Alexander, head of implementation with the Veterans Success Program, a structured mentor program is a critical component of the strategy to ensure student veterans' success.

"I'm amazed at the caliber of student veterans here," she said. "They are really challenging themselves academically and with their professional ambition. These are serious students with difficult majors, from engineering to business and everything in between, and the mentoring program is just one more piece of the puzzle to help them."

On Tiger Giving Day, Feb. 21, donors contributed more than $7,100 for the Veterans Success Program. These funds were used toward scholarships and stand-up desks to accommodate a variety of students with different physical needs.

Additional Veterans Resource Center funding needs include:

  • Veterans Success Program scholarships

  • Tutors compatible with the unique veteran student population

  • Professional clothing and accessories for the wardrobe closet

  • Books for a textbook exchange

Give to the Veterans Resource Center to ensure Auburn's veteran students achieve their educational and career goals.

For more information about the Veterans Resource Center, call (334) 844-8167.