Robert Sheetz spent five years in the U.S. Navy, working on a flight deck, fixing fighter jets. When he got out, the Colorado native came to Wyoming—to put his GI Bill benefit toward an anthropology degree.
“I was a 23-year-old freshman coming into the University of Wyoming, coming from an area where I had a huge structure system around me from being in the military,” Sheetz said. “So I had to kind of learn to build that system for myself and figure out how to be a college student after not being in school for five years.”
When Sheetz started at UW four years ago, there really wasn’t much of a program for veterans.
“It was more under the idea that Veterans would kind of figure it out themselves,” Sheetz said.
There can be a lot to figure out—from navigating VA bureaucracy to dealing with problems like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Marty Martinez is UW’s veterans’ services coordinator. He says making a campus “veteran-friendly” is easier said than done.
“That’s when suddenly we run into financial issues, we run into personnel issues, when we run into programming issues and policy issues,” said Martinez.
To get all colleges in the state on the same page, Martinez and UW hosted a first-of-its-kind conference this month, inviting veterans’ advocates from higher education institutions statewide to team up.
“This is where we can come together, share those ideas, our best practices, talk about our needs as institutions in supporting our veterans, and then maybe help find some solutions for those needs,” Martinez said.
On some campuses, those needs are significant. Lisa Goss is the veterans’ coordinator at Casper College. She says a larger staff is needed to keep up with the growing veteran population.
“I’m the only one currently providing services to veterans and, spring semester I had over 170 that I provided services to myself.”
Brett Burtis, veterans’ program director with the Northern Wyoming Community College District says he’s had to learn to do more with less. He converted an old photography dark room in Sheridan College into a veterans’ service center—a common space he says is essential.
“That’s one spot they know—where they can go for a centralized point of contact for all the services they need, the questions that they need answered,” said Burtis. “It’s a spot where they can bond with other veterans.”
In the past few years, UW has upped efforts to assist and encourage veterans on campus. It now offers training sessions for faculty working with vets, launched an interdepartmental veterans’ task force, and has a veterans’ services center of its own. It’s a place UW Senior and Navy veteran Tyler Long says has helped him a lot.
“The camaraderie inside the veterans’ services center is phenomenal and if someone doesn’t have an answer, they will find you someone who has an answer,” said Long. “And they also brought in tutors.”
It can be difficult to tell what’s really helping vets and what isn’t—because most colleges don’t collect any basic data on veteran students to track progress, as they do with other groups. They can determine how many veterans are receiving education benefits from the VA, but little else. Noticing that, UW recently started identifying veterans upon application and now has a better idea of its veteran population. Martinez estimates there’s about 620 military veterans enrolled at the school.
“And that’s really what we’re trying to do here is to, through data, trying to build an accurate picture of what’s happening with our veteran students in Wyoming,” Martinez said. “I think what we’ll find is—you’re kind of shocked when you realize that, man, maybe we’re not doing as well as I thought we were.”
Martinez says he works to address some important, little things for his students—like when he exempted veterans from UW’s on-campus housing requirement for freshman students.
“I had a lot of people calling me saying, ‘Dude, I don’t want to live on campus.’” Martinez said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I get it, I get it.’ So we worked that out very quickly.”
Similarly, when veterans at Sheridan College argued that a personal wellness class was material they’d already covered in the military, Brett Burtis worked with the school to remove the requirement.
“And that’s just one little change that we made, but it has a huge impact,” Burtis said. “Because they feel like the college is listening and ‘the college cares about me.’”
With small changes like these, and collaborations like this conference, Wyoming colleges hope to help vets focus on education—and ease their transition back into civilian life.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.