Announcements of administrative departures from various departments and issues of short-staffing have become typical at the University, and each instance is a blow to the students the office was created to support. The office most recently affected by this trend is no different, as it impacts the ever-growing veteran student population.
In the last 18 months, five staff members, three of whom have not been replaced, have left the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services. The latest departure is Stephanie Erwin, who served as project manager for academic initiatives and online education in the Veterans Accelerate Learning Opportunities and Rewards office. Erwin was dismissed without warning, leaving many student veterans rightfully surprised and confused.
Although the veteran student population may not be the group traditional students think about most often, there are now about 1,860 veterans on campus. Students and administrators should remember that veterans have varied experiences, have a wide range of backgrounds and may already have spouses and kids. As a result, they have different needs than the average student. The University should make a serious effort to improve the campus experience for them by including veterans in the hiring process for the office and amending the hours of the office to be more flexible.
Administrators can offer a temporary solution by ensuring departments across the University have employees experienced in working with veterans.
It is understandably difficult to compensate for an office facing staff turnover. A smaller, short-staffed veterans affairs office can give off the image to veterans that they are not a priority, but officials can take steps to show their willingness to support them. As they fill currently empty positions, administrators can offer a temporary solution by ensuring different departments across the University, like the financial aid office, have an employee experienced in working with veterans.
The office must hire more people, and as they do, they can then take steps to ensure their priorities match the needs of veterans. Holding a roundtable discussion can be a good way to understand these needs. But just considering their input isn’t enough. The office should bring a few leaders from GW Veterans into the selection process for new hires so they can pick the person they feel works best with the veterans on campus. Furthermore, the office should be available and accessible to all students. Currently, office hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. This timing can already be limiting to some traditional students who can’t make it due to full-time course loads. And considering the office hours are for veteran students who may have families, full-time jobs or live off campus, these hours may not be accommodating for their schedules. Although the office has an option to submit a question, issue or document if students can’t come in during normal office hours, the link to this option on the website doesn’t even work. The services aren’t reaching the students they intend to. To make their services more accessible, the office should have employees that work later in the evening and on Saturdays to better accommodate veteran schedules.
Something the office can begin right away is increasing transparency. Last October, Victoria Pridemore, the associate director of the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services, temporarily left the position for active military duty. Although the office informed veteran students that she was leaving temporarily and provided information as to who they could contact in her absence, the University did not publicly announce it or state who would be filling Pridemore’s role. More transparency and better lines of communication will improve the office.
The University can often overlook the need for integration between veterans and traditional students.
The veterans affairs office can also take stronger initiative when integrating student veterans into the rest of the student body. GW Veterans have already expressed interest in interacting more with traditional students and are actively engaging through programming with other student organizations. The University can often overlook the need for integration between veterans and traditional students as they might focus more on providing them financial support and peer networks within their community. GW’s community can better support veterans by understanding some of the problems student veterans face in acclimating to college life by simply talking to them or actively engaging with them through events and programs.
The University should start a program similar to Georgetown’s Veterans Education Training Ally program. The program creates awareness among civilians in the community about the experiences of veterans and helps create a more supportive environment. GW currently has the Transition Assistance Guidance and Support program, but this program is a network among student veterans and those within the VALOR community. The TAGS program’s role can be expanded so that veterans can interact both within their community and outside it, similar to the Georgetown program. Such initiatives make traditional students more likely to interact with veterans and attempts to address the feelings of isolation and lack of integration between veterans and traditional students. At a city school, where there already is less community engagement, it can be hard for even the average student to feel like part of the community. This feeling can be intensified for non-traditional students such as veterans. Holding events for the sole purpose of having veterans interact with other students, however, can end up feeling artificial. Engaging with veteran students is important, but it is equally important to do it in a meaningful way. And it can be meaningful when students engage in ways that veterans have also shown interest, such as events with other student organizations.
Although the veteran affairs office is currently facing staffing problems, which makes it harder for them to give veterans the support they need, there are still steps that need to be taken to ensure veterans enjoy their time at GW and feel more a part of the student body.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Irene Ly and contributing opinions editor Shwetha Srinivasan, based on discussions with managing director Melissa Holzberg, managing editor Tyler Loveless, sports editor Matt Cullen, copy editor Melissa Schapiro and design editor Anna Skillings.
This article appeared in the September 18, 2017 issue of the Hatchet.