VA expands on-campus counselor program to help student veterans

Friday - 8/30/2013, 5:26am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving ahead with a major expansion of a program designed to be a one-stop-shop for student veterans, putting full-time VA staff on dozens more college campuses across the country.

Department officials say the VetSuccess on Campus Program, which started as a pilot program at the University of South Florida in 2009, will nearly triple in size this year as most colleges start a new academic year, going from 32 college campuses last year to 94 in 2014.

Under the program, VA pays for full-time vocational rehabilitation counselors to be assigned and physically located at each campus, helping veterans with not just their educational benefits, but the entire process of transitioning from military life to civilian live and the world of academia.

"It's a holistic approach," said Mike Dakduk, the executive director of Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit group that focuses on post-9/11 veterans. "If folks need academic counseling or support with their education benefits or health benefits, they have somebody they can go and talk to. It's a centralized resource co-located with one of our chapters or other student veteran groups and other higher education professionals."

Amid reports of high dropout rates among military and veteran college students, VA says making sure students do well at school is one goal of the program, but not the only one.

Curtis Coy, VA's deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, said the physical presence on college campuses gives the department a direct, face-to-face mechanism for connecting with new veterans who are new to dealing with the entire VA bureaucracy.

"I like to tell people that veterans are kind of like fingerprints. Every single one is different in some small way," he said. "In most cases, it's just simply the connection into the VA infrastructure that these counselors can help break through. If a veteran is having difficulties with their post-9/11 GI bill benefits, if they haven't gotten their housing allowance or their books or fees, they can intercede directly on behalf of the veteran."

VA wants to continue to expand the program. As it does, it looks at several factors, Coy said. The department targets campuses with between 800 and 1,200 military and veteran students. Those colleges also provide office space, IT services and telecommunications to the VA counselor, whose salary is paid by VA.

The expansion will also mean some new hiring. Coy said the department is trying to attract its most experienced vocational rehabilitation counselors to serve in the college program, but the jobs they leave behind at VA's own facilities will be filled by new staff.

The department already has websites and call centers that provide much of the same information the on-campus counselors will give students, And VA has been moving aggressively in recent years to make its experts available to veterans via videoconferencing and other telepresence solutions. But Dakduk says for his generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, there's often no decent substitute for talking face to face with a real human being.

"There are certain things that technology can't replace," he said. "Talking to a person, building that rapport is what VA is doing. We need to set them up for success for graduation, but it's also about access to benefits. When you start to access one benefit, you start to realize you have access to other ones like home loans and other things. By interfacing with somebody on campus, you're getting prepared for that."

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