KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 5, 2020 –The transition from life in the military to life on a university campus can be challenging even in the best of times. A regimented schedule may give way to one that is a bit more flexible – but for many student veterans, balancing coursework, classes and tests with a homelife that may include a spouse, children, a job and other priorities can be complicated. Many may make a few friends on campus but find it just as easy to blend into the back row of a classroom, absorb the lecture or class discussion, and then go about their day. It can be isolating.
In an environment made all the more difficult by COVID-19, the University of Rhode Island Student Veterans Organization is working to bring together student veterans, their family members and active military service members each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon, by hosting what it calls “Community Conversations” via Zoom. Community Conversations are open to all military-connected members of the URI community who have questions, concerns or experiences they want to share as they relate to navigating the URI experience.
“It’s been a great way to stay connected since we started these sessions at the beginning of COVID back in the spring,” said Joseph Pine, ‘23, of West Warwick, who serves as the organization’s social chair. “We’ve had a lot of really good conversations and, you know, sometimes we talk about ‘nothing’ – which can also be a nice break from everyday life.” Pine is a double major in American history and secondary education, with a minor in political science.
Marland Chang, ‘21, the organization’s president, added, “It gives us the chance to talk and interact with someone outside of our immediate household, with people who are experiencing – or have experienced – a lot of the same things. It’s helpful to have that contact, especially now in the middle of a pandemic.”
Pine and Chang serve as mentors to their fellow student veterans as part of the URI Office of Veteran Affairs and Military Programs’ Student Veteran Mentorship Program, which was launched earlier this year. The program has connected approximately 60 incoming student veterans and/or their dependents who are either first-year or transfer students with one of seven mentors. Mentors can serve as a sounding board and a resource for students who are able to reach out to them on an as-needed basis.
Says Chang, a communicative disorders major from Cranston, “This is a different environment than what many are used to, and we are here just to give them good information about what to expect, helpful contacts in different departments, where to look for scholarships, how to deal with technology issues. A lot of what we do is to try to get student veterans comfortable with the uncomfortable – and there is just so much this semester that is uncomfortable.”
According to Rachael Garcia, assistant director of Veteran Affairs and Military Programs at URI, there are close to 300 military veterans or active military enrolled at URI, with approximately 140 military dependents. Those numbers have been steadily growing in recent years, as has membership in the Student Veterans Organization.
Garcia started the mentor program as another way to bring student veterans together. “It’s peer-to-peer. The goal is to provide a form of connection and a resource,” she says. “Not everyone participates. It is not mandatory. But it is open to our student veterans and their dependents. Essentially, we want this group to know that ‘We’re here if you need us.’”
Jeff Johnson, an advisor and instructor at the Providence campus, notes the challenges of this semester for students across the board. “Students are missing some of the face-to-face interaction they are used to and spending time with their peers,” he said.
Johnson teaches EDC278, Independent Study in Education. The class is geared primarily toward student veterans and serves as a way to help them become acclimated to a college environment, while making them aware of the programs and services available to them and allowing for the opportunity to meet and bond with those in similar circumstances. While the atmosphere is harder to recreate this semester, students still have the opportunity to interact.
“Things are different this semester,” says Johnson. But the weekly class meeting via Zoom still serves to connect people and provides access to an advisor 2 to 3 hours per week. “I think students are still leaving feeling more connected to URI, more driven and directed in their choice of education, and with a better understanding of the resources that exist to help them and to facilitate their success.”
Garcia and Johnson stress the need to stay connected and credit the Provost’s Office and the Division of Student Affairs for their continued support of the community at URI. “There is a vibrant and active student veteran and military-connected community here,” says Garcia. “I credit the SVO for their efforts in bringing people together and appreciate the backing that this institution has provided for the community here at URI.”
While an in-person ceremony to celebrate Armistice Day this year was not possible due to COVID-19, the Student Veterans Organization and Garcia’s office are working to develop a video tribute that will feature current student veterans and alumni discussing what Veterans Day means to them.
The Student Veterans Organization’s Community Conversations meets via Zoom every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon. All members of the military-connected community as well as alumni are encouraged to attend.
“Things are especially challenging now with COVID,” said Chang. “But, regardless of whether you are a first-year student or if you have already graduated, I want people to know they still have support and are still connected to URI.”