Evergreen offerings make school a top spot for vets

Olympia college No. 8, Saint Martin’s No. 16 on national list of Best Colleges for Veterans

For The OlympianNovember 18, 2013 

More than once in recent years, The Evergreen State College has made news for student and faculty participation in anti-war protests. Last week, the college made headlines for its successful efforts in attracting military veterans.

As Evergreen was preparing to celebrate its new Veterans Resource Center with an open house, U.S. News and World Report placed The Evergreen State College on its list of Best Colleges for Veterans.

Only three schools in Washington were ranked, all on the list of best regional universities in the West: Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma (No. 2), Evergreen (No. 8) and Saint Martin’s University (No. 16).

“We actually beat out Saint Martin’s, which kind of surprised me, because they have classrooms on Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” said Evergreen spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser.

Randy Kelley, director of the Veterans Resource Center, took a different view.

“It’s a hidden gem,” he said, adding that he is impressed by how much TESC has done to support veterans, reservists and other students with military connections.

Seven years ago, the college formed a committee to study what it could do to better serve veterans, reservists and other students with military connections. Every recommendation the committee made has been implemented, the final one being the new Veterans Resource Center.

And the changes have paid off – in both U.S. News and World Report’s ranking and in attendance. In fall 2010, 120 veterans were enrolled at TESC. Since then, numbers have risen steadily, with 192 veterans currently enrolled.

The new Veterans Resource Center aims to be a complete resource for students with military connections. Kelley calls it a “one-stop shop.”

Previously, the university had a tiny veterans office as part of the Registration and Records Office.

“If you had seen the old space, it was literally like a closet,” Kelley said. “When a veteran comes in and you send him to the veterans center and it’s basically a closet, it tells that vet something about how the college feels about veterans.”

For veterans, reservists and military family members interested in attending The Evergreen State College, the center offers help with the application process and with the more complicated process of applying for funding through the GI Bill and other federal programs. Prospective students can use the computers there to complete online applications.

Lance Cpl. Kekoa Hallett, a Marine Corps reservist stationed at JBLM stopped by during Wednesday’s open house to drop off some paperwork. He’ll be starting his freshman year at TESC in winter quarter and has been working with the Veterans Resource Center on applying for tuition waivers.

“I was just introduced to the veterans center a couple of weeks ago,” Hallett said. “Everyone’s been very helpful and kind.”

The center offers students help with transitioning to the academic environment, communicating with professors and finding additional financial resources so they can stay in school. The center also can offer referrals to on-campus counselors trained in working with people who have suffered combat trauma.

But the center isn’t just for students in need of assistance. It also offers a place where students with connections to the military can connect with one another and feel at home. They can relax on the couch, watch a sporting event, heat up their lunches or just talk.

“There was a study done by Rutgers University in 2007,” Kelley said. “The one consistent thing at all successful veterans programs was that there was a space that was dedicated on the campus for the vets, a space they can call their own.”

The college also offers Veterans Voices — a class for veterans, reservists and members of military families — aimed at easing the transition to academic life.

“We look at modern industrial warfare, the life of a warrior in this culture, the transition from the warrior culture to the academic culture,” said Daryl Morgan, an architecture and design professor and veteran who teaches the class.

Kelley has more veteran-specific plans in the works, including training for professors on how better to serve students from military backgrounds and an office and classrooms at JBLM.

“There’s a whole population there that Evergreen could really help and not just the active-duty personnel,” Kelley said. “You have the dependents, too.”

Increasing access to classes and services is just part of what draws veterans to TESC, though. The U.S. News and World Report rankings don’t just look at veteran-specific services but also at a college’s academic resources and reputation.

It’s the quality of education that drew both Hallett and Eder Nuñez, a sophomore transfer who started at The Evergreen State College in the fall after 10 years in the Army, to the school.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “I find it important to have a place like Evergreen, where you have a curriculum that is designed to promote critical thinking. I think that’s the most important aspect of maintaining a healthy society.”

While transitioning to academic life is challenging for some veterans, Nuñez has experience moving from one culture to another: He immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 10.

“By the time I joined the military, I saw it as an exercise in adapting,” he said. “I remained me at my core. My values are not necessarily those of the military.

“The values here are more aligned with what I envision for myself. It’s like a homecoming of sorts. I’m finally at a place where I’m very comfortable. I know I can talk to anyone about anything. You can speak your mind about the state the world is in. In the military, there’s a different culture.”

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