New Veterans Center At SIUE Makes Services More Accessible
EDWARDSVILLE — The transition from military service into higher education can be isolating for veterans.
It’s an experience Telisha Reinhardt knows well. She served in the Navy for four years before going to undergraduate and then graduate school.
“It’s really hard for me to put into words how that isolation feels, especially when you’re around people who are speaking the same language as you,” she said. “It feels like you’re an alien, and you’ve just been zapped into this classroom.”
Reinhardt is now focused on eliminating those feelings for veteran students at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she coordinates military and veteran services at a new Military and Veteran Resource Center, which opened in January. She said she’s working to establish support groups for women veterans, veterans of color and other marginalized groups.
“When I was going through my path in life trying to find my way after getting out of the military, I could not find these support systems anywhere,” she said.
Reinhardt explained that life in the military is highly structured. When you wake up, what you wear, who you live with, who you work with and many other aspects are pre-planned and stay consistent from day to day, she said.
“When you leave that structure and go to the university where you’re pretty much at your free will, it’s like, ‘What do you do with this?’” Reinhardt said.
There’s often a disconnect between the life experience veteran students have and more traditional undergraduate students who are many years younger, said Kevin Wathen, director of military and veteran services at SIUE.
“You don’t just come in and sign up for classes, you actually have to think about your educational goals and how that fits with your service time and the benefits that you receive from the VA or from Illinois,” he said.
The new center serves the dual purpose of connecting veteran and military family students to resources and counseling and providing a space for veterans to connect with other people on campus with similar life experiences, said Wathen, who served in the Army National Guard. He added it’s centrally located on the campus and has already seen good traffic, even during the pandemic, since it opened last month.
For Reinhardt, the center helps to increase the visibility of what she offers and of the challenges veteran and military students at SIUE face.
“Before the center we had services, but it wasn’t an official space for them to come and just be,” she said. “The center puts a face to the people.”
Reinhardt and Wathen’s efforts aren’t lost on veteran and military-connected students either.
Bradley Hebert, who’s studying computer management and information systems, said he chose SIUE because of the support he felt from the university after seven years in the Air Force. He said Wathen explained how to access some of the benefits he’s entitled to as a veteran.
“A lot of the VA benefits and the GI Bill benefits are based off how proactive you are with your paperwork,” Hebert said. “I became aware of road bumps before they even had the chance of happening.”
He added the resource center also gave him a social space to get feedback on ideas or compare college experiences.
“I knew that I could go there, ask the question, and I'd get a straight answer,” Hebert said. “Because other people would have experienced it before me. It was nice to know that those social structures were there.”
Even during the coronavirus pandemic where there aren’t many students on campus, Wathen said the center has veteran and military-connected people in it every day.
“I can only imagine what it’s going to be like once we get back to full capacity here on campus,” he said.
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