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Helping Veterans Transition to Life on Campus

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(Back row, L–R) Undergraduate Admissions Administrator John Belardo, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Military Relations Lamar Johnson and Undergraduate Admissions Administrator Justin Hewelt. (Front row, L–R) Accessibility Representative with Military Specialization at the Academy Resource Center Stella Dacy and Undergraduate Admissions Administrator Rick Pellum. Photo by Bob Toy.

The Academy of Art University is proud to embrace the country’s military population by helping those transitioning into aspiring artists and professionals. By being approved to accept benefits administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there are several options and services for prospective students—whether active duty, veterans, reserves or vocational rehabilitation—to consider when deciding if the Academy is the right place for them to pursue the next chapter in their lives.

Using Veterans Benefits

But how do VA benefits work? According to Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Military Relations Lamar Johnson, there isn’t a “one-size fits all” way of going about the application process. 

The VA determines what kind of benefits each veteran is eligible for, including how much funding and for how long. Each situation is different, which is why the Academy employs a Military Admissions and Veterans Benefits Administrators team that understands the policies and speaks the VA language.

“A lot of it is making sure everything is done correctly, but a lot of what we do is advising,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure they understand their benefits and are best utilizing them, but also making sure they even understand the school. We go through a very in-depth process with them so that they know the Academy is the right fit for them.” 

Veteran benefits are categorized in a series of chapters. Each one depends on the student’s status determined by the VA, but according to Kenneth Ortiz, associate director of financial aid, a majority of current students utilize Chapter 33 Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Currently, he said, there are around 800 total in the school’s armed forces population, including spouses and dependents.  

Additionally, the Academy is enrolled in other programs to aid veteran tuition funding, such as the Yellow Ribbon Program which aids any veteran expenses that exceeds the VA’s GI Bill annual cap.

“For veteran students who have tuition and fee expenses beyond the annual cap, the school will cover 50 percent of their tuition and fees to match what the VA will pay,” Ortiz said. “Not all schools are Yellow Ribbon schools and if they are, sometimes they’ll have a program limit. At the Academy, any veteran who the VA determines is eligible for the Yellow Ribbon program will receive the Yellow Program match.” 


From the Field to the Classroom

Ensuring funding for tuition is only one aspect of transitioning into a school setting. William Liu, director of marketing and a veteran himself, said the Academy wants to build more awareness around how different art career possibilities align with military skills. 

“There’s a synergy between the on-hands training, which aligns with any Academy department,” Liu said, comparing how the school’s hands-on approach and “doing is learning” initiative fits within the military mantra. 

Building community and camaraderie is also pivotal in returning to civilian life, Liu explained. And while going to school can potentially foster that, many veterans still encounter roadblocks both in and out of the classroom. Stella Dacy, an accessibility representative with military specialization at the Academy Resource Center (ARC), works with students with veteran-related diagnoses and figure out ways the university can help “level the playing field.”

Similar to how each vet’s benefits are different, their classroom needs may also be different. They may need help getting to class or there are issues with their benefits and they are unable to buy the supplies needed for their core classes. Other times, adjusting to civilian life takes its toll. According to Dacy, the ARC is there to provide “accessibility and accommodating without pigeonholing into this idea of ‘disability.’”

“We’re just trying to make sure that [you’re] able to work to the best of [your] ability,” she says. “Whether you have a physical or mental diagnosis, there are roadblocks and we’re here to try to remove them.”

In addition to assistance with mobility or medical issues, the ARC provides individual coaching sessions to on-site and online students. Learning specialists are primarily on-campus, though can work with online students in specific areas. If necessary, the ARC staff can link students with outside sources, such as a counselor or therapist, to help with life stressors.

“At the end of the day, we just want to make sure they’re meeting their course outcomes,” she says. “Sometimes those challenges for veterans are very different from general student population. [They’re] always welcome to ask questions even just to see if our services pertain to [their needs], and if we’re not, we can at least help connect them to the right place.”


Building Camaraderie at the Academy 

In many cases for veterans, adapting to civilian life is challenging, especially when going back to school. 

“There’s cultural shifts between our veterans or our active duty military and our civilians at large, especially in a school environment,” said Austin Coulter, a Marine combat veteran and School of Illustration student at the Academy. “A lot of things change. And so, it’s absolutely a culture shock, that transfer between the very regimented military lifestyle where everything is handled in a very specific way to just being in charge of yourself again.”

In addition to the academic and financial resources available, the university supports a Veterans Club run by Coulter as its president. According to Coulter, despite many of the military population being scattered throughout the Bay Area, he has been able to utilize Facebook to create an online network for many Academy vets. 

An informal support group of sorts, but nonetheless effective, Coulter said the community is extremely responsive when anyone is having issues with their transition, whether it’s with administration, financial aid, housing or dealing with the day-to-day transition. 

Coulter himself has been instrumental in researching and pushing for other ways to support club members. He’s a member of the Bay Area Student Veteran Leadership Council, which is a gathering of veterans club presidents from other local colleges and universities that meet with representatives from groups such as the VA and Presidio Trust to discuss the successes of their groups and what can be done to improve the well-being of military students. 

The next goal is to open the Veterans Resource Center (VRC), located in the basement at 79 New Montgomery. Coulter said a designated area gives them a place to work away from other students or distractions. The space would also be used to hold meetings, invite the VA to speak to students, enroll people in VA health care and “have all of our resources listed because there’s an immense amount that veterans are completely unaware of and oftentimes need.” 

Coulter and the Veterans Club is working closely with several Academy administrators to fulfill the additional wants and needs of the university’s military students. For Coulter, that first step is filling the VRC with computers, work stations and an individual acting as a veterans’ liaison. 

“We’re setting up the school to be really great for veteran students,” he said.