Auburn’s Veterans Resource Center, COSAM professor providing support for student veterans on campus

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The transition to college life can be daunting for incoming freshmen, but for a university’s student veteran population, it can be even more of a challenge.

At Auburn University—which again recently was named one of the nation’s most military-friendly universities—the Veterans Resource Center, or VRC, is dedicated to helping hundreds of Auburn’s student veterans not only adjust, but thrive.

Established in 2012, the VRC serves as many as 350 student veterans and approximately 1,300 survivors, spouses and dependents at a time. Whether it’s assisting with management of Veterans Affairs, or VA, benefits, providing a welcoming place for veterans and dependents to relax and commiserate or organizing events that promote togetherness and camaraderie, the VRC is a great asset for Auburn’s veteran family.

Located at 217 Foy Hall, the VRC is directed by retired U.S. Navy Capt. Paul “Puck” Esposito, a 30-year veteran who knows what student veterans are facing when they enroll in college.

“If you could imagine sitting in a military barracks somewhere and two weeks later, you’re sitting in a classroom at Auburn,” said Esposito, the VRC’s director since 2016. “That’s a big step, and our veterans are usually considerably older than their peers in class. Some of them may have attempted school before, and some this may be their first attempt. They have very different life experiences, and some of them are supporting families.”

The VRC, Esposito says, offers a wide variety of resources for student veterans to utilize on a regular basis.

“We provide them everything from a lounge to tutoring, give them a chance to use computers and study spaces, a book exchange for textbooks and a clothing locker for donations,” Esposito said. “Those are some things we do to help student veterans manage their experience here at the university.”

Esposito and his team provide student veterans information and guidance about everything from financial aid, housing and job placement to navigating their way around campus. Through its Auburn Warrior Orientation and Learning, or AWOL, program, the VRC pairs new student veterans with a fellow veteran to show them around and serve as an advisor.

“It’s peer to peer and is just one of the things we do that helps transition someone who’s got different life experiences and may be considerably older,” Esposito said. “It gives them a chance to assimilate into the student lifestyle a little bit easier.”

One of Auburn’s student veterans, senior Justin Schwab, has benefited greatly from the AWOL program and the VRC in general. The building construction major—who spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps from age 19-24—has taken a leadership role among his peers, serving as president of the Auburn Student Veterans Association, or ASVA.

“We do our own version of Camp War Eagle, and we actually take them by where their classes will be and all over campus,” said Schwab, 33, who rose to the rank of sergeant. “We walk them through the AU Access [computer system] and let them know what they need to know for Day 1 so they’re not lost and trying to figure it out while they’re at their first Auburn classes.”

Schwab knows firsthand what it’s like to be an older student on campus for the first time after serving in the military.

“Most veterans coming in, they’ve got a totally different life experience than an 18-year-old or 19-year-old freshman,” said Schwab, a Fort Walton Beach, Florida, native who arrived in Auburn in 2018. “A lot of them have a wife or husband at home and have kids, and it’s totally different what they’re expecting. That’s why the ASVA fits, because you’ve got a lot of people who have similar life experiences, and we can have the same kind of conversations.”

Schwab first became involved with the ASVA by participating in Operation Iron Ruck, a partnership between the ASVA and the Campus Veterans Association, or CVA, at the University of Alabama where participants complete a 150-mile march between the universities’ stadiums. Marchers carry a 22-pound rucksack representing the 22 veterans who are lost to suicide each day, and items from the rucksacks are donated to the Alabama State Veterans Homes, Homeless Veterans of Alabama and Three Hots and a Cot.

The annual Thanksgiving week event garnered considerable media attention throughout the state and prompted Auburn graduate and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to designate the special day Operation Iron Ruck Day last year.

“I really got to know a lot of the student veterans who were there [at Operation Iron Ruck], and I decided to get involved,” said Schwab, who was deployed to Iraq and the Western Pacific during his time in the Marines.

Speaking of involvement, the VRC not only provides practical information and advice for Auburn’s student veteran population, but also a haven of sorts where they can enjoy fellowship among people who can relate to their experiences.

“If you’ve ever been around a locker room or the barracks, you kind of miss that,” Esposito said. “Ducks like ducks, and the opportunity for people to come and be around people who get them and have been there and done that is great. It doesn’t matter if they served for 40 years or four months, there’s that bond, and it’s hugely helpful for them to transition and throughout their time at Auburn.

“For an old guy like me, being around a new generation of warrior is refreshing and is what keeps me coming to work every day.”

Esposito’s efforts at the VRC received a boost recently when U.S. Army veteran Henry “Hal” Schenck came to the Plains from Iowa State University as the Rosemary Kopel Brown Chair and professor of mathematics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM. Schenck—who was selected as a 2020 Fellow for the American Mathematical Society—has brought a high-energy approach and a bundle of positivity to the university and the VRC.

Schenck partnered with the VRC to set up an intensive one-day workshop at the start of the semester to help refresh student veterans on basic math skills. The Math Boot Camp program brings student veterans up to speed on algebra, trigonometry, log and exponential functions and other math tools that may be rusty.

“My own experience is what catalyzed me to do it, because I know how hard it was for me coming back to school,” said Schenck, who served from 1986-90. “We’ve got these folks who have been out for two, three, four, six years serving our country and not doing math. Math is one of the biggest hurdles because it’s one of the subjects where, if you don’t use it, you forget it.”

Schenck, who earned his master’s and doctorate from Cornell University, also provides math tutoring sessions for student veterans at the end of the semesters.

“One thing we do is extra review sessions during finals week,” Schenck said. “Basically, the idea is, the more math reps you put in during finals week, the better off you’re going to be. The Rosemary Kopel Brown endowment that supports my chair gives me some financial flexibility, so we had six or eight TAs who helped out with those extra tutoring sessions for student veterans during finals week.”

Schwab, for one, benefited greatly from the extra math help.

“Math Boot Camp was a big deal,” Schwab said. “I had a 10-year gap between pre-calculus and trig. I was OK when I did trig, but when I went into Calculus I, I was in trouble.”

Once in-class instruction becomes the norm again, a new program Schenck has on tap is “Calc Platoon,” where a cohort of student veterans in the same math class brainstorm ideas and work problems together, with a math teaching assistant able to lend a hand, if needed.

“What we want to do moving forward is, for each of those classes, you have a special weekly tutoring session,” Schenck said. “It creates a peer group that’s like a platoon, and it’s a group of folks who are doing the same class at the same time. It’s providing the extra resources to make sure everybody has a chance to get their questions answered so they can succeed.”

Schenck has enjoyed working with the VRC and only sees his role with the organization growing more and more.

“The VRC is a terrific group of people dedicated to the success of Auburn student veterans,” he said. “It is great working with them, and we’re going to continue to build programs and find ways to support Auburn’s student veterans.”

Schenck looks back on his time in the Army with pride, and Veterans Day means a lot to the professor.

“I think America is a fantastic country, and I’m proud to be an American and proud to have served my country,” Schenck said. “I feel like veterans helping veterans succeed is a way of paying it forward in honor of the people who helped me when I was coming up.”

The Plains have quickly made a profound impact on Schenck as well.

“I love Auburn,” he said. “I think the Auburn Creed is something that’s really special, and I think Auburn’s a special place. It’s a super vet-friendly school, and I’m really excited to be here.”

Schwab also applauded Auburn for its dedication to student veterans.

“Auburn has always welcomed all of us with open arms, and there’s not too many places I’d rather be,” he said. “Auburn always talks about the Auburn Family, and you feel that as a student, but that’s the same kind of mindset we come in with the veterans, too. We’re just as much a part of the family as anybody else, and sometimes even more so.”

Getting involved with the VRC and connecting with other student veterans deepens an individual’s college experience, especially those who also are involved with the ASVA.

“I really feel like we’ve made a difference, not just within the community, but within the state,” Schwab said. “We feel like we’re really making some strides and doing some good things, and Auburn and the Student Veterans Association is what gave us the ability to do that. This place will forever be a part of me, no matter where I go from here.”

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