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Student veterans’ age, experience add dimension to campus

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Student veterans Nick Osborne, a Coast Guard veteran, became the first coordinator of Veteran Student Support Services within the Office of the Dean of Students last January. Osborne says the veterans bring a "pretty unique life experience" to campus, but they don't want to be defined by it.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, Oct. 20, 2011 | Craig Chamberlain, News Editor | 217-333-2894

Johnny Watts was a signals analyst in military intelligence in the Army. Elizabeth Ambros, a Navy corpsman, managed the medical care for 300 Marines. Andrew Kennedy led an Army scout platoon in urban combat.

Support for Student Veterans

A full list of resources related to
student veterans – including a section for faculty and staff members who work with them or have them as students – can be found on the Veteran Student Support Services website: For additional information or to schedule a presentation, contact Nick Osborne at or 217-333-0050.

All three were deployed at least once to Iraq.

Now they’re among the more than 350 identified student veterans on the UI campus. About 70 percent are undergraduates, the rest graduate students.

It’s a number likely to grow in coming years with the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the improved educational benefits now available. The Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect two years ago and the state-funded Illinois Veterans Grant provides benefits to veterans attending public Illinois colleges and universities.

What makes these students different, up front, is age and experience. Their time in the service came while many current undergraduates were still in middle school and high school. Their jobs in the service may have involved significant responsibility, if not significant danger. Some may have seen the worst of war.

“They’re coming in with a life experience that is pretty unique,” said Nick Osborne, a Coast Guard veteran, who last January became the first coordinator of Veteran Student Support Services within the Office of the Dean of Students.

At the same time, they don’t want to be defined by it, Osborne said. “It’s just one part of their identity.”

For the undergraduate veterans, however, the age difference alone can set them apart from their classroom peers, Osborne said. It’s easy for them to think “Why am I with all these kids?” he said.

Watts, a 26-year-old married sophomore in electrical engineering from Madison, Ill., put it concisely when he said “we were them before.”  They do things he used to do, but which he’s “really not interested in doing anymore,” he said.

Most veterans did their share of “goofing off” during off-hours in the military, said Ambros, a 25-year-old sophomore pre-med kinesiology student from Puerto Rico and Chicago. “We’re already past that,” she said. “Now we’re here to get something done.”

The veterans’ age and experience not only can set them apart, but also make some of them better, more-goal-oriented students, Osborne said.

Watts said he credits the military for giving him the discipline to sit and study even on a sunny Saturday in the Illini Union, when other students were out playing on the Quad. Ambros said her experience as a corpsman gave her confidence in skills she knows she will need as a doctor.

That doesn’t mean the student veterans don’t face challenges – from feeling academically rusty after years out of the classroom, to difficulties managing finances, to finding a supportive peer group.

“In the military, you have what I would consider a family, and it’s a really, really tight family, especially when you deploy together,” Watts said. It’s a bond that “sticks,” and one that’s harder to find on a campus where most can’t relate to your experience, he said.

One place Watts, Ambros and Kennedy have found connections, however, is the Illini Veterans, a registered student group founded by student veterans during the 2009 spring semester. Illini Veterans also is part of a nationwide coalition called Student Veterans of America.

“We’re an organization that’s just like them, for the most part,” said Kennedy, 29, who didn’t find the Illini Veterans until last spring, his third semester as a master’s student in business administration and human resources. Now he’s the president.

“We share similar experiences, we relate to each other, just that camaraderie that we miss from being in the military,” said Kennedy, a West Point graduate who spent more than five years in the Army before returning to school.

Many of their activities are social, just hanging out, he said. There’s a weekly Thursday evening meet-up at a Campustown bar, which usually draws about 30, and other get-togethers for watching football, and teams organized for intramural soccer, football and darts.

In the spring, they organized a drive to send care packages to troops overseas, and in the fall helped Osborne organize a campus ceremony to honor the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. The organization also is consulted by campus administrators and organizations seeking input on veterans’ issues, Kennedy said.

In the midst of all the Illini Veterans activities, “there’s also kind of watching over everyone else, in case someone’s got other problems,” Kennedy said. “We can generally relate to it and help out.”

Many times those problems can be mundane, Osborne said: difficulties in getting benefits or, for those still in the Reserves or National Guard, getting flexibility on classroom assignments in order to attend a unit training exercise.

But there also are wounded veterans who need accommodations for physical disabilities, or help in dealing with the Veterans Administration, he said. And there are veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, who may need counseling or other kinds of help.

PTSD, however, can be a sore subject among many student veterans, Osborne said. Many of those he works with have complained that too often when military service comes up in class or general discussion, it’s through the subject of PTSD.

“If you only look at it through that lens, I think that it’s a disservice to veterans,” Osborne said. “I think that it’s important that PTSD is taken as one piece, but not the center piece.” Veterans don’t want to be viewed as “damaged,” he said.

Questions or comments related to PTSD – such as “Are you OK (mentally)?” – are near the top of those that Osborne advises non-veterans to avoid when talking to vets. Some of the others: “Are we winning?” “What was it like?” “What do you think about the war?” “Vietnam all over again.”

Topping the list, perhaps, is “Did you kill anyone?” Watts said the question doesn’t even usually come up among veterans.

 Osborne presents the list as part of a presentation he has given about two dozen times to faculty and staff members and community groups. He sees it as part of his role as a bridge between the student veterans and the campus.

Prior to becoming students, some veterans are concerned “that they’re not going to be valued or honored for their service, and that it could actually be used against them,” Osborne said. Later, however, most have found “it’s been quite the opposite – that for the most part their faculty and their peers have been extremely supportive and respectful and wanting to know more.”

Osborne describes his job as a “natural fit” and his background seems to support that. He has the military background with the Coast Guard, serving in a military intelligence role that included a tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait.

But he also holds a master’s in social welfare, in which he specialized in the study of college-age men and masculinity, as well as a doctorate in higher education administration. He also worked for the Veterans Administration while in school. His education and experience lend themselves to counseling, advising and mentoring, which are all part of the position, he said.

He also has the assistance of Kennedy and two other veteran-graduate students, employed part-time through work-study and all accomplished in their own right, he said.

As for his broader role as an assistant dean of students, Osborne compares the activity and energy to what he found in the military. “It’s just constantly like being on active duty,” he said. “Every moment of every day, when the phone rings, when a student comes in, you just don’t know what you’ll be dealing with.”

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