Veterans at the Beach

BY: NIK BATES

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CSULB was named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine for the sixth straight year this September. To learn more about the campus’ efforts to help student veterans as they make the transition from military to civilian life, we spoke to Dr. Marshall Thomas, director of the Veterans Services Office on campus. The veteran of the Marine Corps is also a three-time Cal State Long Beach graduate – he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from CSULB. Give me a brief overview of the goals of Veterans Services and what is available here. The first is benefits certification. We want to make sure that student veterans receive their G.I. Bill benefits and that they are passed on to their dependents as well. Outreach is really important, where representatives go out to local community colleges and education fairs to help bridge the gap between community college and the university.

What is Vet Net Ally? Vet Net Ally is a faculty and staff awareness program that covers military culture, why people join, transitioning issues and the identity issues that surround being a veteran. Whenever you see the Vet Net Ally logo on an administrator’s desk or a professor’s syllabus that means they have attended the session.

What is the most important thing you want veterans to get out of CSULB? The most important thing is that they graduate. We talk a lot in higher education about access; it’s not easy to get into CSULB. But most important is that if you get the access, you have to have the success to follow. I want people to graduate with a degree that’s going to let them go out and get a job and to have a rewarding and profitable career. There’s nothing worse than seeing people come in and not make it.

Is there a common struggle or experience that all veterans should know they share? I’ve talked to veterans at multiple colleges and universities about their experiences and transition issues. Many times, they are offended that younger students who followed a more traditional route are not as respectful to professors and respectful to the rules as they would like to see.

The veteran sits in class and they are very focused on pursuing their education. They respect the position of the person standing in front of the class, and they often see students texting, or on Facebook during class. That tends to be one of the most difficult things they experience. It’s a culture shift; the culture of the university and college isn’t the same as the military. The veterans have to change their expectations of the people around them in order to feel comfortable—and they do find that very frustrating.

Was it any different before you got here? Were there any changes you wanted to make coming in? Yes and yes. It was different, but it was different because it was really new when I came in. Like a lot of colleges and universities, there was no office for Veterans Services until the post 9/11 G.I. Bill passed in 2009, and that was the case here as well. We had someone who did the certification, but they didn’t do anything beyond that. With the post 9/11 G.I. Bill being passed in 2009, an office was created to serve veterans.

My predecessor did a great job in getting the whole thing started, defining what Veterans Services needed to be like on campus. They started doing outreach to community colleges, and looking at veterans as a special population of students.

In some ways it’s sad that we didn’t have Veterans Services, not just here, but anywhere. I mean, we’ve had veterans since 1775, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t serve them at schools. Veterans Services is a field that has really grown a lot over the past five to six years.

So the groundwork was there and you built on that? When I took over, the foundation was there. My predecessor was really big on admissions and getting people in. Now that they’re getting in, we’re looking at what can we do to make sure they are successful. We are now able to get people to the learning assistance center and get tutoring. We are continuing the connection with Disabled Student Services, the Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Career Development Center. It’s really building and strengthening our ties with the other services on campus.

Our campus has a history of doing a great job with EOP students, disabled students and athletes. We’re not creating anything new, just duplicating what works well in other places. Those partnerships are really valuable.