Moving from a warzone full of shrapnel to a classroom full of 18-year-olds can be a jarring experience, said Texas A&M senior Timothy Judkins.
The former marine and president of the university's veteran's association said the transition is tough for many service members, but he hopes a new university initiative will change that.
Texas A&M formally opened its Veteran Resource and Support Center, or VRSC, in late October. The center had been operating in a limited capacity since September, and officials expect it to be a one-stop-shop for the university's 600 student veterans. It is currently manned by two people in the Koldus Student Services Building.
The vision of the center is broad, according to director Col. Jerry Smith, USMC (Ret.) and Aggie alumnus. Smith envisions the center as a hub to help direct veterans to the different resources already provided by the university, serve as a gateway to community veteran organizations, form an alumni network, gather data for analysis and more.
"When veterans come in they are often nontraditional students -- older, married, live off campus," Smith noted. "They tend to be a little more disconnected to the resources that exist on campus. What I'm trying to do is initiate programs to identify these students before they even get to Texas A&M and help them become successful students, then transition from being a student into workforce."
To help gauge success more concretely, Smith hopes to start gathering data on veterans' graduation rates, dropout rates and performance. Those indicators, Smith said, will help the center know what needs of veterans to target.
The formation of the center follows veteran support measures by the university system. In 2011, the Board of Regents created the Veterans Support Office in the A&M System's headquarters. That same year the Student Veterans Advisory Council, made up of a student representative from each of the A&M System's 11 universities and the Health Science Center, was formed. The Texas A&M center is driven partly by demand. The university had about 500 students on military benefits in 2008-2009, Smith said. When the GI Bill and Hazlewood Act became available for spouses and dependents of veterans in 2009, that number spiked. There are now about 2,000 students receiving benefits, Smith said.
Judkins, who served in Somalia, said he had his fair share of mistakes navigating campus when he transitioned to student life.
"You're told what, where, when and how -- you're told everything when you're in the military," Judkins said. "Then when you get out, especially coming got this size campus, it's just laid out there -- 'Here you go.'"
Travis Kiser, a former marine and Texas A&M senior, had a similar experience finding the veteran services on campus. Kiser is hopeful that veterans coming to Texas A&M in the future will have an easier time.
"I didn't have anything like [the VRSC]," Kiser said. "I had to find that out on my own. I had to go find a counselor or talk to someone about financial problems. This makes it so much easier, it really does."
Judkins said veterans at Texas A&M already appreciate the center.
"It's still in the early stages, but some of the immediate impact is simple stuff, like tickets for veterans for some of the football games or some of the OPAS events," Judkins said. "It may not seem like much but for a lot of these veterans, they're paying rent and bills, unlike traditional students. They might not have the money to go get a season pass."
One of the center's first projects is planned for 5 p.m. Thursday in 111 Koldus. The VRSC will partner with the university's career center to sponsor "Combat Boots to Businesses Suits," an event that will feature a job search and career development strategies for veterans. A panel of distinguished veterans who have successfully made the transition will administer the panel.