Sacramento State Deploys Support for Veterans Across the Campus

Max Whittaker for The Chronicle

Students can drop in to the Veteran Success Center at Sacramento State with questions about courses and campus life. The university plans to open a computer lab and a lounge for veterans in the fall.
May 29, 2011

Veterans with questions about courses at California State University at Sacramento used to have to stand and wait. Long lines led to the registrar's service counter, which an adviser would then leave to consult a veterans-benefits coordinator, in a cubicle behind two doors. Forget it, some students would say on their way to class or work or home to their kids.

Then, in 2006, California founded the program Troops to College to make the state's public institutions "more veteran-friendly," and the Cal State system's chancellor leaned on its 23 campuses. Sacramento State took note of its neighbors: two Air Force bases and the California Department of Veterans Affairs. And university officials made veterans a top priority, backed by the president, Alexander Gonzalez, a Vietnam vet from East Los Angeles who had gone to Pomona College on the GI Bill.

In five years, Sacramento State has progressed from a hidden cubicle to the Student Veteran Success Program. From its growing headquarters, two staff members and several student workers now promote services across the campus for a population of veterans and dependents that has nearly doubled, to 1,250, about 5 percent of the total enrollment. Collaborators come from academic departments, student groups, the career center, and the development office.

"Everybody knows about the veterans program," Mr. Gonzalez says. "It's not just an add-on."

Sacramento State is responding to a widely acknowledged but often neglected need. More than half of colleges provide some services to veterans, typically related to education benefits, but less than a quarter help them transition to campus, according to a report in 2009 by several higher-education groups. On average, student veterans perceive lower levels of support than their classmates do, the National Survey of Student Engagement found last year.

Colleges' efforts are expanding, but many still fall short, says Meg Krause, associate director for military programs at the American Council on Education's Center for Lifelong Learning. "You can't just slap on a sticker and say, 'This is a veteran-friendly program.'" Private and federal grants, including from the council and the Walmart Foundation, are trying to identify the best strategies for serving student veterans.

A long view is vital for traditional colleges at a time when for-profit institutions, with generally lower retention rates, are aggressively recruiting veterans, says Ed Mills, Sacramento State's associate vice president for student affairs, enrollment, and student support. He is motivated not by competition but by a sense of obligation. "We've built a really comprehensive experience that's focused on graduation," he says. "I definitely want a student veteran to be at Sac State."

Janelle Adams, an Army veteran, first enrolled here in 2006. She struggled to make friends and withdrew from campus life, she says: "I felt like I didn't belong." Before the end of the semester, she was recalled and deployed to Iraq.

When she came back, in 2008, she found a Veteran Success Center, adorned with pennants and posters, including the U.S. Soldiers Creed ("I will always place the mission first," it says, among other things. "I will never accept defeat."). It was crowded with classmates who studied and swapped war stories and slung banter like old buddies.

"Feeling comfortable here first," Ms. Adams says, "allowed me to feel comfortable in the rest of the university."

Matthew Ceccato, a former Army paratrooper, camped out in the center after transferring from Sacramento City College in 2009. "I was in here all the time, asking questions," he says.

Of course some students still hang back, but a veterans lounge opening on campus in the fall—couches, TV, computers—may draw them in, he says. "We'll get more people who fall through the cracks."

Building Up and Out

If Sacramento State is on a mission, Jeff Weston is in command.

After four years in the Air Force, Mr. Weston came home and enrolled at the university in 2003, working part time for the veterans-benefits coordinator. Two years later he graduated, she left the job, and he replaced her.

Tucked away in the cubicle, Mr. Weston processed benefits for about 600 veterans and dependents. They submitted their paperwork at the counter until he changed the procedure: Students would drop it off to him. "That at least gives you 30 seconds to get a face to a name," he says.

He hired a couple of work-study students, held afternoon round tables, and found a small group to start a student-veterans organization. "We knew they had the leadership capacity," he says. "We just needed to harness that."

Then Mr. Mills joined the administration and heard about the lines. He moved Mr. Weston, who was earning a master's degree in educational leadership, out of the registrar's office. Senior administrators, committed to a more comprehensive program, promoted him to director of veterans services.

The University Foundation, which raises funds for Sacramento State, invited Mr. Weston and a student, Austin K. Sihoe, to share their ideas with its board of directors; the chairman, George Crandell, immediately pledged a gift.

"I looked at Jeff and I was like, 'That's a pretty handsome donation, $2,500,'" recalls Mr. Sihoe, a Navy veteran and physical-therapy major. An e-mail afterward confirmed that the amount was $25,000, and that the foundation had started a campaign to raise $100,000.

The momentum brought recognition—and visitors, like Chrystal C. Ramirez Barranti, an associate professor of social work and a behavioral-health volunteer with the National Guard. "I just went over and introduced myself," she says. "From then on I was like, 'Jeff, we've got to do this, we've got to do that.'" With her help, the fledgling program won a $100,000 grant from the American Council on Education and the Walmart Foundation.

That paid for Ms. Barranti to design and teach a veterans-studies course, then experimental, now permanent. And Mr. Weston brought on a temporary benefits coordinator, Lindsey Wathen, whom the student-affairs division later hired, freeing Mr. Weston to expand the program.

Six-foot-six but unimposing, he is well known around the campus. The former logistics officer has enlisted partners in admissions, financial aid, and counseling. "I went to the Pride Center, the Women's Resource Center, and said, 'You know, can we collaborate?''"

Last September the Veteran Success and Pride Centers sponsored a panel discussion, "Don't Ask, Don't Care," with gay military veterans. In November the student-veterans organization and two other groups held a diversity conference with sessions on military women and dependent life. That week the campus newspaper ran a series of profiles of student veterans.

They look out for one another, organizing "vet cafés" with representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, and the Wounded Warrior Project. For classmates with families or night shifts, they recap evening meetings the next day at lunch.

The veterans program has grown at Sacramento State by focusing not on students' risks but on their potential, says Mr. Weston. He surrounds himself with students for their ideas, he says. Each semester he hires two work-study students and six more through the Department of Veterans Affairs, which lets recipients of educational benefits perform related work.

To find the next classes of students and leaders, Mr. Weston goes out recruiting. He regularly visits a half-dozen local community colleges, as well as churches and VFW and American Legion meetings. He wants to talk with veterans who may not be thinking about college, he says, grinning. "Yet."

Outside Funds

Of course, growth costs money. Unfortunately, that's in short supply these days, especially in California.

Still, the university has committed to maintain two positions for the veterans program, its "rising star," says Lori E. Varlotta, vice president for student affairs. Beyond staff, expenses are uncertain. This year the program gave out $80,000 in scholarships to student veterans, and Mr. Weston and Ms. Wathen hope to sustain, if not increase, those awards.

They also plan to expand a five-week Veterans Success Academy from 10 participants in its first cycle, last summer, to 50 this year. "Outside funding is going to be critical," Ms. Varlotta says.

Glossy materials are at the ready, and administrators can boast success. On average over the past four years, 93 percent of student veterans have returned for their second year of college. Last spring veterans' grade-point average was 3.11, compared with 2.94 for the general student population.

In December, Wells Fargo pledged $100,000 to the program; the University Foundation has raised about $150,000 from individual donors. Mr. Gonzalez, the president, wants to set up a special endowment for private funds, which lack the restrictions of state appropriations.

As fund raising has become a bigger part of Mr. Weston's job, he's found that he likes discussing plans: to provide dedicated services to female veterans, for example, and to military spouses and dependents. To start mentorships between student veterans and Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets. To extend professional preparation beyond career fairs by tapping a new alumni-veteran chapter.

One project is veteran-friendly zones, an idea Mr. Weston adapted from the Pride Center's safe zones for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and staff: sensitivity signaled by stickers on office doors. (Veterans on the campus may not feel unsafe, he says, but stigmatized.) He and Ms. Barranti are developing a 90-minute training session on issues common among veterans.

Another front is academic credit, which veterans often earn in the military and want to count toward their degrees. Mr. Mills has set his sights on an agreement to accept transfer credit from the University of Maryland University College, whose online courses consistently appear on veterans' transcripts, he says.

The next few years will be hard, Mr. Weston says, but he's confident. "We're going to flourish," he says, "despite the budget problems."

Meanwhile he looks for any services he can provide without more money or staff. In the student union, the engineering dean shouts a friendly greeting; Mr. Weston later explains that he is referring a student to the dean. He senses when student veterans are somber, he says; sometimes all they need is a pep talk. He connects new and seasoned students who share the same majors.

"What can we do with what we have?" he asks. "We can always do more."