From combat to college: Student veterans form new unit at UMSL

Approximately 30 people attended a flag-raising ceremony this morning, Veteran’s Day. Members of UMSL’s new Veterans Student Organization (from left) Ben Miller, Joe Gomez, Jeff Aiken and Jonathan Baker raise the flag to honor all veterans, but especially the 270 student veterans on campus. Members of the Gateway Battalion U.S. Army ROTC led by Lt. Col. Jim Craig also participated in the ceremony.

Joe Gomez says he knows a fellow military veteran when he sees one. And when he came to the University of Missouri–St. Louis as a student in 2009, he saw a lot of them. He understood what they were going through.

Gomez, a senior majoring in political science, is one of the founders and president of the new Veterans Student Organization. Four VSO members raised the American flag in front of Woods Hall this morning, Veteran’s Day, with more than 30 people looking on. The students organized the ceremony to honor all veterans, but in particular the veteran students at UMSL.

“I want to make sure that when someone gets out of the military and comes to UMSL, he or she can succeed,” Gomez said. “When veterans get out, it helps to have people around who understand. That’s why this organization is important. We’ve shared sacrifices and experiences and can identify with one another.”

Gomez, 27, served eight years in the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Service, most of them on the USS Pennsylvania. Taking advantage of the newest G.I. Bill, he jumped from patrolling under the world’s oceans to college student in January 2009. Those two worlds couldn’t be more different.

“I just did horrible my first semester here,” he said. “So I decided to switch my major, enroll in summer school and start all over again.” Taking classes whenever possible, he’s chosen anthropology as his minor and is studying Arabic, “to understand different cultures.” He’s now on track to graduate in May 2012.

VSO member, Jonathan Baker, 27, spent eight years in the U.S. Army serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a sophomore majoring in history and has experienced a similar transition.

“I moved here from Georgia with my wife and year-old daughter right after I got out of the Army,” Baker said. “I thought I had a plan, but the VA (Department of Veteran’s Affairs) makes it very difficult to get through their process. Enrolling for school, finding housing. My saving grace was seeing that VSO banner the first day of school.”

Established as an official student organization in February 2010, the VSO has increased the visibility of a group with special needs.

Approximately 270 veterans attend classes at UMSL and receive benefits through the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which provides financial support and a housing allowance for veterans. The total number of veterans enrolled at UMSL not receiving federal aid, is unknown. But that is expected to change.

“We realize that with upcoming troop withdrawls, the number of veterans attending college will only increase,” said Miriam Huffman, assistant dean of students who oversees the Office of Student Life. She and her office helped the VSO group get up and running.

“Our office is looking for ways to support our veteran students beyond their financial needs,” she said. “We’re talking to our veterans, attending training sessions, hosting Webinars and sharing information with other universities to determine veteran needs and university resources.”

Terry Jones, professor of political science and a faculty adviser for the VSO, said one of the top agenda items for the group is to receive college credit for some of their military experiences.

“Many universities grant equivalent course credit for college-level training in the military,” Jones said. The American Council on Education maintains a clearing house of course equivalency information to facilitate credit award decisions.

Jones, Chris Spilling, professor of chemistry and a VSO faculty adviser, and other faculty and administrators met with veteran students this week to discuss equivalent course credit and some of their other agenda items.

“We were very pleased with that meeting,” said Gomez. “I had this warm feeling when I walked out. All right, good things are really happening now.”


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