The Veterans Association at Texas Tech provides a network of support to help student veterans and their families succeed on campus and beyond.
Before arriving at Texas Tech University in 2017, Kathryn Jones had already served four years in the U.S. Navy as a petty officer first class electronics technician.
She had traveled the world on the USNS Comfort, a Mercy-class hospital ship, for a six-month, 11-country medical mission, and had served on the USS Jason Dunham, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Becoming a Red Raider was a bit of an adjustment.
"I felt displaced," said Jones, now a psychology major. "My classmates tried, but couldn't understand me. I was different from them. I was older, struggling to figure out my benefits and trying to help my husband, who is from the Bronx, settle in West Texas. I needed some help."
That help came in the form of fellow student veterans within the Veterans Association at Texas Tech (VATT), the local chapter of the national Student Veterans of America (SVA) organization. Through academic support, fellowship and community volunteer opportunities, the organization provides student veterans the tools necessary for social and academic success on and off campus.
"The VATT was the first place I felt I could talk about these issues and truly be heard," said Jones, the current VATT president. "Often, we miss the camaraderie from our service, and that is what the VATT is for. We have a lot of great services on campus, but transitioning back to school can be hard. We are older than our peers. We have spouses and families. We deal with the same issues as most nontraditional students, but it is compounded by dealing with the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) for our benefits."
VATT members typically meet at 6 p.m. every first Monday of the month in the basement of the Student Union Building. Most meetings have 15-20 attendees, said VATT career liaison officer Dan Reif, who will complete his Master of Business Administration in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business this semester. Prior to attending Texas Tech, Reif, who served one enlistment on active-duty in the U.S. Army, was able to connect with VATT members through his SVA involvement at Texas State University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in applied arts and sciences.
"I came in with that connection," Reif said. "When I was moving to Lubbock, I reached out to them and found out about the first meetings for the year."
Now, the meetings give Reif and other established members a chance to serve fellow veterans who are new to university life. Many come to meetings filled with questions about navigating life as a veteran on and off campus. Some are struggling academically.
"It's important to have a resource like the VATT to prevent dropouts," Reif said. "That's always the biggest concern. It's really prevalent among veterans, who can feel like they're not understood by their classmates or professors. We are a knowledge base and a support structure. We try to get people to keep moving forward in their classes."
VATT members share more than just academic support and knowledge, helping new members when it comes to securing academic benefits, dealing with the VA, resolving issues with disability benefits or finding other resources on campus.
"We are a social group with a unique support system, because our members also are our greatest source for information on issues," Jones said. "If a veteran has an issue, we are here to help. If a veteran doesn't know where to go or who to talk to, we can find that information."
VATT vice president Carol Castillo also had served four years of service before becoming a student at Texas Tech. As a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps, she served seven months in Afghanistan, completing construction projects on bases, roadways and water culverts. After taking classes at a community college in California, Castillo, who grew up in Milwaukee, and her husband, who had grown up in Lamesa, moved to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech.
"My husband was familiar with the area and knew people who still lived in Lubbock," said Castillo, a senior construction engineering major. "I knew no one. At the Transfer Student Orientation, I learned about TechVet Boot Camp, which consisted of resources and information that new student veterans can take advantage of. At the boot camp, I learned about the Veteran's Association at Texas Tech. This organization was a way for me to make friends in the area with the added bonus of them having a similar military background, and the same 'odd man out' feeling among typical college students. Hanging out with other veterans made me feel at home. I've been involved ever since."
Connecting on campus
As a veteran, it can be easy to miss out on those types of connections, VATT members said. Many veterans have families and off-campus commitments. When they're on campus, it's usually only for a short while, so they focus on one thing: going to class.
But Reif, who currently serves as a graduate senator in Rawls College with the Student Government Association, said it's important to get connected outside of academics for two reasons: making a difference while on campus and making connections for success after graduation.
"Get involved with the VATT and get involved with other organizations that fit things you're interested in," Reif said. "The Student Government Association is great because you meet with administrators, and we're fortunate on this campus that administrators want to talk to students. I think they have a really strong repertoire from years of positive relationships, and I saw it as an opportunity to speak about a couple of things that I feel need to be addressed on campus."
In addition to administrators and other VATT members, Reif said connecting with fellow non-veteran students who may be unfamiliar with the veteran experience is important because it helps erase misconceptions and break stigmas he said many veterans deal with.
"One is the idea that veterans have traded one aspect of life for another," he said. "We didn't go to college and instead went to the service. Every veteran joined for their own reasons, whatever that is, but you come out with some sort of a desire to serve, and we're here now. That doesn't go away just because you're not in the service anymore. A veteran student isn't going to necessarily approach you and be like, 'Hey, let me tell you what I learned when I was your age.' But if asked, they absolutely want to be a resource; they want to share life advice. There's this deep need to serve."
Student veterans are a source of information on things like travel, something many traditional students want but have not yet experienced. They also can share their insight on leading others and succeeding in the workplace, skills they cultivated in the service that also will be crucial for any student graduating and entering the workforce, no matter what industry.
"We are a diverse group, we want to share our perspectives and ideas, and at the same time, hear yours, too," Reif said. "We have a lot to offer the student populace, and I think it's really important students understand that."
Connected at the national level
Networking with VATT goes well beyond the campus. One of the main initiatives of the VATT is sending students to the annual SVA National Conference, or NatCon, the largest annual gathering of student veterans in the country.
Every January, hundreds of speakers and exhibitors attend the conference. There are sessions about utilizing veteran benefits, how to translate their skills from their service to a resume and how to get grant money for research, among other topics.
Main session briefings focus on issues that relate to student veterans at large, like federal legislation about benefits. There also are representatives from well-known national and international businesses looking specifically to hire veterans for internships and careers.
"There is no better job fair in the world for veterans who are also students," Reif said. "Whether you're undergraduate, graduate, traditional, nontraditional, you name it, the employers are there. Going to NatCon is a big deal, because you get exposure to this alternative route into these huge, multi-national companies through their diversity inclusion initiatives for veterans. We try and send our graduating students a year before, so they actually have time to do something with the connections and the programs the different companies have."
SVA also hosts an annual Leadership Institute in September, an immersive program that provides skills training and resources students can take back to their campuses to improve their chapters. SVA, institute partners and sponsors provide travel, lodging and meals for students selected to attend the institute. Most institutions have only one student accepted to attend the institute each year.
In September, Jones, Reif and VATT secretary Kyle Ridenour all were accepted to attend the eighth annual institute, held from Sept. 10-13, in Washington, D.C.
At the institute, in addition to connecting with leaders from other student chapters, Reif said he was able to receive additional training directly from a LinkedIn representative, who trained Reif in proficiently using the professional networking app. The information he learned, like including the correct and official "employer" for the Armed Forces branch in which a member served, was something he could bring back to other VATT members to help them increase the number of searches they appear in for potential employers.
"That's a really important thing to know as a service member, how to make things in your profile stand out," Reif said. "I'm an MBA student at the Rawls. But if I work on a project at the Rawls, I can put that in a different area of my LinkedIn profile. I put it under projects, and I can list the different people I worked with here at the Rawls, but also, under the organization where that project was done, I connect it to the Rawls. All this data connects together, and it raises my value in the algorithm, so I come up more frequently in searches for those type of projects, even though I don't have work experience. Who thinks about these things? I know I didn't."
Support on campus and in the community
Castillo said while the chapter tries to send as many students as possible to NatCon, because the organization doesn't fall under a specific college at Texas Tech, they don't receive as much funding as other student organizations.
To counter this lack of funds, the organization completes several fundraisers throughout the year, including twice-per-semester give-back nights at Local Bar and Grill on Broadway, where a percentage of the sales supplement travel funding while also helping pay for campus events. These include tailgating events at each home football game, group outings to go bowling or to the shooting range, and volunteer activities within the community.
"We try our best to stay involved with the Military & Veterans Programs department and all of the events that they plan, but we also partner up with Team Red, White and Blue, and VetStar for community service activities they are a part of, like collecting food donations for Lubbock Impact and serving older, local veterans," Castillo said. "We also participate in typical student organization things like Arbor Day, all of which give us the sense of camaraderie we had while in the military."
Currently, VATT is accepting donations through a university crowdfunding page where people can donate until Dec. 7.
"Anyone can donate any amount to the fundraiser," Castillo said. "All they have to do is go to the fundraiser page. Even if someone can't donate, they can share the page via social media to reach more people. I wish for all of Texas Tech's student veterans to have the opportunity to attend the National Conference and/or the Leadership Institute."