University of Washington: Creating a supportive environment for veterans, UW pauses to recognize those with military service

Arriving at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, Brandon Green had a familiar feeling of disorientation.

Green, 33, who transferred to the UW from Everett Community College after spending seven years as a U.S. Army medic, had travelled the U.S. and the globe, including two tours in Afghanistan. He’d undergone rigorous training and knew what it was like to deploy to foreign, often dangerous places.

Even with all that experience, college life was different.

“All of a sudden you go from every day being very structured, everyone knows their place, as it were, and everyone supports one another to this world of pure chaos,” he said. “It’s really easy to feel lost, especially stepping into a large academic institution, where not only is that sense of structure and camaraderie gone, but now you’re outside of your element. It’s like deploying to another country, but not having your training.”

Green isn’t alone. The transition from military life to an academic setting is a challenge for many veterans. And yet, the promise of an education is one of the reasons many people join the military.

Since 1944, the GI Bill both paved and paid the way for veterans and their families to pursue a college degree, graduate school and other training. Federal mandates established under the Obama administration require college campuses to provide more. Called the Eight Keys to Veterans’ Success, participating institutions must look after “the whole person.”

Veterans Day at the University of Washington

Veterans Appreciation Week activities kicked off Sunday and continue all week. Learn more here.

At UW Seattle, that’s part of the mission of Student Veteran Life, which provides about 3,066 veterans and their families with a community of peers and resources to help navigate the complex world of veteran benefits. With Naval Station Everett and Joint Base Lewis-McChord nearby, hundreds more veterans and their families attend UW Bothell and UW Tacoma. The tight-knit bonds that were established during military careers are touchstones for creating safe, supportive communities, designed to help people succeed in academia.

“We assume that people are being challenged intellectually in the classroom,” said Samantha Powers, the director of Student Veteran Life at UW Seattle. “We basically seek to fill in the rest.”

Student Veteran Life at UW has evolved over the years. The office first was established to assist veterans and their families with receiving federal benefits. Since then, spaces were created for veterans on each campus, indoor and outdoor activities planned, and special resources added to help veterans find mental health counselling and land a job.

“We strive to equip all of our students with the tools and skills to succeed at UW and to thrive in their lives beyond. Key to this is embracing each student’s unique story and recognizing how their past informs their present,” said Denzil Suite, UW’s vice president for student life. “Through their experiences and perspectives, our student veteran community brings an irreplaceable richness to our classrooms and our campus.”

mug shots
UW veterans at all three campuses are being recognized during Veterans Appreciation Week. Shown here – left to right – are Ryan Trepanier, Liv Fowler, Brandon Green and Ben Studley.University of Washington

Veterans on campus

Each year, veterans at all three UW campuses organize events — some somber, others joyful — to honor the dedication and sacrifice of the men and women of the armed forces. Ceremonies already are underway across all three UW campuses for Veterans Appreciation week, culminating on Thursday, when the country recognizes the Veterans Day holiday.

“We really want to try to provide opportunities for people to connect with other student veterans,” Powers said. “While it’s great that they come to us and feel comfortable coming to us, it really is more important that they make that connection with each other, so that they are together through their entire time at the university.”

Student veterans come to campus with specific needs, desires and perspectives. They can arrive fresh from active duty where they were experiencing life-and-death situations, Powers said. That’s different from most 18-to-22-year-olds.

“Both are hard transitions,” she said. “But you know, looking at dead body parts on a PowerPoint might affect a high school graduate differently than somebody who’s just gotten back from Iraq or Afghanistan.”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce recognizes veterans

Read UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s remarks for Veterans Day here.

Rosa Liu, director of veteran services at UW Bothell, said having a place for veterans on campus saves lives. Suicide rates are high among the veteran population: According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 14% of all suicides in the U.S. in 2019 were veterans, and an average of 17 veterans took their own lives each day.

“The experiences that our veterans gained from their military career are profound,” she said. “They’ve seen more life than you and I, things that we may not even want to see.”

Ben Studley, 42, who went to UW Bothell for undergraduate and graduate work after 16 years in the U.S. Navy, now works in constituent and veteran relations for U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene.

He honed his leadership abilities as a chief gunner’s mate and discovered that he could apply the same skills on campus.

“I found my path,” he said. “And I said I want to get involved with the veterans on campus. What do they need, what do I need to succeed here?”

The camaraderie doesn’t end with military service, Studley said.

“It keeps you going, and it keeps you realizing that you still do have family outside of the military,” he said.

Camaraderie among bowling, Dungeons & Dragons

Student Veteran Life sponsors bowling, art classes, ski trips, board games and more to provide opportunities for veterans to connect and thrive. Inside the Student Veteran Life office at the HUB, there’s always free coffee, chill music and a sense of belonging.

“The biggest thing is just being able to talk with students through their experiences,” Green said. While studying for a degree in biology, Green has worked in the Student Veteran Life office, offering peer support and helping to establish an indoor activities program. “Even if we don’t provide solutions, just providing a sounding board for them to vent and feel like they’re not abnormal, or this isn’t a weird thing that they’re going through, that it’s okay to feel like that.”

Ryan Trepanier, 26, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school. He chose UW Tacoma to pursue computer science because he wanted a smaller, more intimate academic community.

Now in his senior year, Trepanier works in the Veteran & Military Resource Center, is president of the Student Veteran Organization and was a senator in Associated Students of UW Tacoma.

“One thing that I missed about the military was the brotherhood and camaraderie,” he said. “I wanted to still get a sense of that on campus, so I knew that it would be easy to accomplish that by meeting people who had similar backgrounds.”

Liv Fowler, 24, a sophomore studying linguistics and Hebrew, started at the UW in early 2020 at the outset of the COVID pandemic. A former U.S. Navy nuclear mechanic, Fowler left the service after her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Anthony Nimtz, died while serving in Hawaii.

What we can do for veterans is respect their humanity and understand that they come from so many different walks of life. Veterans Day is important because it’s a singular celebration of that.
—Liv Fowler / UW sophomore and former U.S. Navy nuclear mechanic
“It’s really invaluable to be around people who kind of can empathize,” she said.

Once at the UW, Fowler decided to join an online Dungeon & Dragons community sponsored by Student Veteran Life. Although she hadn’t played before, she felt comfortable trying something new among a group of peers with whom she shared a common experience. She now works for Student Veteran Life as a peer mentor.

Giving back and recognizing Veterans Day

Giving back and offering service to others is key to many veterans’ identities.

That’s why it’s important, veterans say, to recognize those men and women who put their lives on the line to protect freedom.

“What we can do for veterans is respect their humanity and understand that they come from so many different walks of life,” Fowler said. “Veterans Day is important because it’s a singular celebration of that.”

Veterans Day is a way to bridge gaps between civilians and people who have made a pledge to fight for their country, Green said.

“At the end of the day I just really hope that people can get together and learn to share experiences and be there for one another, regardless of their background,” Green said. “I think that’d be a great way to really honor Veterans Day, to be able to try to understand people.”

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