Aggie support for those who served

Aggie support for those who served

After retiring from the Marines about five years ago, Gerry Smith opened Texas A&M’s office for veterans support and resources. In that brief time, the office has expanded and developed a unique, three-stage program to support student veterans throughout its campus career.

Texas A&M has a long history of supporting veterans. In fact, the university opened its first office for veterans in 1919. That office is still active today, focusing on educational benefits, scholarships and processing benefits.

The American Legion spoke with Smith, a member of Legion Post 159 in Texas, about Texas A&M’s role in helping veterans transition from the military to the civilian world.

The American Legion: How did the need for a second veterans office come about?

Gerald Smith: We found out in late 2008 that Texas A&M, even though it was one of our senior military colleges in the country, was not designated as a veteran friendly institution by Service Members Opportunity Colleges. Things started changing and over four years the need was determined to open a second office to specialize just in resource and support. That's what I opened in 2012. It was myself and an assistant kind of stuck in an office suite next to some other folks. We have grown in the five years. There are a total of 22 full- and part-timers now. We own the office suite now and we have a full complement of 25 programs that we run or support around campus.

TAL: What are some of the key programs that you've instituted that help veterans find employment, become entrepreneurs, etc.?

Smith: One of the first programs we built was our Aggie Veterans Network. The idea was to have a resource or individual to send student veterans to on campus, mostly academically related. Rather than saying, ‘Go see College of Liberal Arts,’ you could say, ‘Go see Mike over in the History Department. Here's his office number, email and phone.’ The Aggie Veterans Network grew by leaps and bounds. We managed it on a spreadsheet and when we hit about 500 contacts, it got unmanageable. We are trying to go to the Aggie Veterans Network 2.0 and web base it so that we can connect the resources with the student veterans directly and our office doesn't have to be in the middle of it.

TAL: Tell me about Texas A&M’s military admissions program.

Smith: It’s one of the most unique programs we have here at A&M. We have two full-time dedicated military admissions advisers. For a four-year public school, a lot of those institutions don't have any full-time dedicated. They have some part-time folks, sort of do it on the side as a collateral duty. We're very fortunate here. They see well over 120 new prospective student veterans every month. Either phone, email or walk-in. They're not recruiters. They are to help support the administrative process and the transition to Texas A&M. We have three core programs that really work in tandem. We connect them with the military admission program. Once they're admitted they're handed off to our peer advisers who use the Aggie Veteran Network to resource and connect students with opportunities for success.

TAL: Let's say I'm a veteran and I'm interested in a program that A&M offers. Walk me through that first point of contact and my rep in the admission program.

Smith: A lot of our student veterans don't know what's available and they unnecessarily limit their opportunities because a captain, a gunny, or somebody out there told them, ‘Yeah you were an infantryman, you can go be a law enforcement officer.’ Well, there's a lot more in this world for our veterans to do than just something tied to their MOS. Our admissions advisers will say, ‘Let's not talk about major. Tell me what you want to be doing in four, five, six years. What interests you?’ They work through, we call it, the academic initial triage discussion. They just get to know them. Find out what they like, what they dislike, what their strengths are, a little bit about the family situation and then they will make some recommendations on various majors to suit their individual kind of preferences. Then they'll link the up through our Aggie Veterans Network to some of the academic advisers in those majors and they can get more detailed help and assistance to help get them in the right major.

TAL: When the admission reps are talking with the veterans, are they also going over benefits like the GI Bill?

Smith: Not at that point. If they have specific questions about it, we will refer them to the other veterans office to get that support. Our goal is to get them on the right academic path and degree plan first and then we'll let them figure out how they're going to use their benefits, pay for it and minimize their student loan debt once we get them on that right path.

TAL: What’s the next step in the admissions process?

Smith: Now, as they go through the admission cycle, as soon as they apply within seven days we send them an initial email. It explains the resources we have, how to connect with other student veterans. Once we see that they are admitted, that's when we do the automatic pairing with a peer adviser, hopefully in the same college. That peer adviser will reach out to that new student vet that just got admitted and say, ‘Hey, congratulations. I know you got a lot of questions about moving here, housing, all these other things. Here's our orientation letter to talk about kind of the life support and transition. Take a look at this and then email me, call me. Let me help you out here.’ Then the students actually take over that process in helping them get transitioned to Texas A&M.

TAL: Let's talk a little bit more about the Aggie Veterans Network. Is this something where the students get involved early in their college careers or when they're looking to leave college and enter the workforce?

Smith: The Aggie Veterans Network, we use that as our kind of pool of resources. I guess the answer is yes, all of the above. If I get a student vet or an active duty service member that emails us and says he or she wants to come to Texas A&M, I reply and send them information out of the Aggie Veterans Network. The resources are there for the pre-admission side, the resources are there for the current students. We use community groups like The American Legion and other veterans support groups. We have about a dozen military affiliated student groups that support each other and our veterans and dependents. They're part of that network. We also have a number of employers for that next transition and our association of former students. Once our student veterans graduate, we keep them on a list and we pull them into our former student veterans pool. Now they're out there in the workforce, whether it's Amazon, Chevron, IBM, you name the company, we can reach out to them and that's corporate mentoring; sometimes it's geographic location. All different kinds of connections begin, it's using those that have plowed that ground before to help others follow in their footsteps.

TAL: What specific roles has the Legion, whether it's a post or the Department of Texas or individual Legionnaires, played?

Smith: It just so happens if you're in Bryan, Texas, our local Post 159 actually started on campus here in 1919. It actually started on campus and then it relocated into the community. American Legion Post 159 here is superb. When I looked to veteran organizations in the community, they're the paramount leader in our community. I got dialed in with the Legion at that point, through the local military coalition. What I learned was we had almost no student veterans. We have 1,200 student veterans, we had almost no student veterans as members of any of these organizations in town. The American Legion tended to be the older veterans and the younger veterans that were here, typically post 9/11, one they didn't know about it and there was no participation. We started bringing the American Legion to some of our events on campus. At orientation and throughout the school year. The American Legion has provided our student veterans support when they hit a critical financial challenge. They've helped them through some of those rough patches. They've hosted a local veterans legal initiative for free legal help. Rather than do it on campus, we opened it up to the community and the Legion hosted. The Legion here had made their Legion Hall available to any of our military affiliated student organizations free of charge.

TAL: Is there anything else I didn't ask you or something that you didn't mention that you'd like to?

Smith: What has really helped us guide our way is that application to vocation support model and tied to that we have designed four pillars. The application to vocation is kind of the when you support, the how you support is tied to the four pillars and I liken it to fitness. I tell student veterans I want them to be fit. They automatically think of physical fitness. We have reoriented them to start thinking in terms of academic fitness, financial fitness, career fitness and wellbeing, or social fitness. We believe that through our campus and community partners, anything that we can do to try to be proactive to help them reach out and pull these resources and enhance their fitness level in those four areas, we can set them up for success. That's kind of the tact we have taken here to try to get the application to vocation success.