As the United States ends military conflicts across the globe, colleges and universities expect veterans enrollments to increase. Access to the GI Bill and improved career prospects make enrollment an attractive prospect for veterans, but for many, adjusting to the student can be difficult.
A new partnership between UNLV and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) seeks to change that. The Veterans Academic Leadership Integration Program (VITAL) arrived at UNLV in August. The university is one of some 90 campuses participating in the program.
James Taylor, a US Marine Corps and US Army veteran, is the coordinator of the VITAL program. He says the program has the ability to change lives.
“Veterans can call me for anything,” said Taylor, a licensed clinical social worker. “They could have a problem as simple as housing or transportation, or it could be a serious medical problem or a crisis situation. I’m here to help them find resources.
Taylor’s office is located at the School of Social Work at Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. He provides one-on-one counseling, hosts group support circles, and is the go-to when veteran students need help accessing health care programs, benefits, and physician referrals. He also promotes awareness of the issues and strengths unique to Veterans on campus.
The UNLV has sought for years to be part of the VITAL program, said Ross Bryant, executive director of the UNLV Military and Veterans Services Center.
“On average, 20 veterans kill themselves every day in the United States,” said Bryant. “We are not immune from this at UNLV. Unfortunately, we had four veteran student suicides and two family members from 2012 to 2016. We hope this program will help a struggling veteran.
Having a dedicated VA employee on-site makes it easier for veteran students to get help right away, Taylor said. Instead of going to a VA site and going through what can be a tedious administrative process at times, a student veteran can make an appointment with Taylor or spend their office hours.
“The goal is to provide services that a veteran would get at the VA Hospital right here on campus,” Taylor said. “Sometimes when a veteran decides to seek treatment at the VA hospital, it can be a huge headache, and because of that, sometimes he doesn’t get the help he needs.”
A campus open to veterans
The number of UNLV student veterans is growing, Bryant said, and student veterans are succeeding here. The graduation rate for six-year UNLV veterans is around 70%, far better than the national average and better than the general student body. He attributes the growth and success of student veterans to the expanded resources offered by the Military and Veteran Service Center and a welcoming climate on campus.
“Nevada is actually one of the least populated states in the country when it comes to military personnel, but we increased the number of veterans at UNLV from 600 to 1,800 just before the pandemic,” said Bryant. “Our popularity with veterans is that UNLV is veteran friendly, and we strive to include veterans. “
In 2019, UNLV was named one of the top universities in the country by Military Magazine. The university ranked 33rd among four-year institutions in the 2019 edition of “Best for Vetas: Colleges”, up from 62nd in 2018.
Academics at work in the field
Taylor’s presence at UNLV brings another benefit, said Carlton Craig, president of the School of Social Work. The partnership between the UNLV, VA Military and Veteran Student Services Center and the UNLV School of Social Work increases awareness of the needs of veterans and improves the learning environment for veteran students. The key to graduating from veterans is to ensure that their integration into universities is supported. One way to do this is to recognize the physical and emotional challenges that military personnel face.
Craig said there is a growing need for social workers to understand how the personal and professional experiences of military personnel have been shaped by their years of service. Craig said the recent withdrawal of US troops and military personnel from Afghanistan will require more social workers to be trained in post-traumatic stress disorder and recovery.
In addition, the cohort of veterans who served in Afghanistan will have different coping skills compared to veterans from other American missions and wars, Craig said.
This is why social work staff are currently working with Taylor to develop learning opportunities for graduate social work students.
Masters of Social Work students are expected to perform fieldwork in a clinical or community setting in order to benefit from mentorship and hands-on experiences working alongside qualified professionals.
Currently, Masters of Social Work students are enrolled in an internship at the UNLV Military and Veterans Service Center. The centre’s Veteran Education Peer Counseling (PAVE) program offers support to help veteran students overcome challenges on and off campus.
While mentors can come from any academic discipline, seven of the 15 mentors in spring 2021 were master’s students doing a mandatory internship at the School of Social Work.
Social work students are optimal peer counselors for such a program, as support for community members is intrinsic to their future careers. The internship partnership between PAVE and the School of Social Work allows social work students to practice their lessons in the classroom while providing campus veterans access to their highly skilled peers.
Craig is considering another program and internship designed for students who wish to counsel active duty military and veterans. The internship would require social work students to see clients with Taylor.
“We want to reach veterans early, talk to them early, give them more access to quick advice, to someone qualified like James, because we know that need is growing,” Craig said. “So our hope with all of this is, firstly, to intervene in a crisis and secondly, to help them succeed after the army, because we know that they are a very resilient and hardworking population. . “