When students visit the Office of Veteran Services, Ross Bryant, the center's director, wants them to feel at home and to know that academic success is achievable. That's why a poster with the names of past veteran graduates hangs near a computer kiosk where potential students work on applications. A world map is littered with colored pushpins showing where current student veterans were born and where they've served. And they're greeted by staffers who are veterans themselves.
These are small touches that go along with many bigger ones.
About one million veterans are attending college right now; that number is expected to double in the next three years, says Bryant. UNLV's veteran population numbers 1,200 today, nearly 5 percent of the UNLV's student population. G.I. Jobs Magazine has named UNLV a "Military Friendly School," and the UNLV Office of Veteran Services, the Student Veteran & Military Family Support Committee and the veteran staff are a big reason why.
"What we want vets to know is that we're going to take good care of them when they get here," Bryant said. "When you get here, we try to connect you to the resources for being successful without the anxiety and stress."
Finding the best ways to take care of veterans is an evolving process, Bryant admits. One day he may be attending a seminar about veteran suicide in hopes of bringing experts to campus to help faculty and clinicians better serve these students. He may, be parked at the computer station helping a veteran sort out registration paperwork. Or, he may be working with Veteran Service Organizations to inform lawmakers on legislation that could help veterans. Such was the case last year.
In July 2013, Assembly Bill 260 was passed, allowing veterans discharged honorably within two years to qualify for state residency. Previously, veterans new to the state had to either wait a year for residency or pay out-of-state tuition for their first year at UNLV.
"Imagine yourself coming back from Afghanistan, you've never been to school, and you find out you're being charged $7,000 a semester," he said.
The law has helped about 180 veterans this year alone.
Priority registration has solved another bureaucratic issue for veterans. Veterans' GI bill benefits are all processed out of a central office in Oklahoma. Allowing veterans to register before the general student population enables them to get their paperwork in about a month earlier than most other vets around the country. That means UNLV veterans often now receive tuition, book, and other funds before the start of the next semester.
"That took a lot of stress off of me last semester," said Christina O'Gara, an Air Force veteran now on the pre-nursing track at UNLV.
Bryant emphasizes the importance of personal interactions between the office staff and student veterans. "Other schools say 'Isn't it great that we have all this online stuff. I say 'No," he said. "That doesn't really get you to the finish line. We seek to interact with each veteran and see if there are other issues that might impact their academic success."
His staff is trained to connect veterans to campus support services, counseling services, veteran community resources and even part-time employment opportunities both on or off campus.
Bryant's staff also works directly with the registrar's office to assist military personnel who might be suddenly deployed in the middle of a semester. In the past, "receiving orders" could lead to students failing classes; the low GPA that ensued then led to difficulty returning to school. Now, deployed students at UNLV have the option to test out of a class early, accept the current grade, or take an incomplete that stays in place until reinstated.
The office also works in conjunction with the UNLV Career Services center and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's office to host a semi-annual veteran career fair. The event is more than a meet-and-greet with nearly 100 employers and more than 250 veterans in attendance. In addition to offering valuable workshops, human resources representatives are on hand to actually schedule interviews and second meetings.
"It's much more positive than just handing out resumes and not hearing back," Bryant added.
To highlight the success of graduating veterans, the office hosted a reception in May at the UNLV Foundation building. UNLV's Executive Vice President John White, Nevada State Assemblyman Elliott Anderson ('09 BA Political Science), and representatives from the Governor's office, Nevada's Congressional delegation, and the veteran community congratulated the more than 116 graduating veterans and their families.
"The entire community thanked these veterans for their service and congratulated them on their academic achievement," Bryant noted. "They were also encouraged by the attending veterans to continue their service in their community."