SUNY Oswego placing greater focus on attracting, supporting student veterans

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego has launched an ambitious set of short- and long-term goals to provide top-notch services to current and former members of the military.

To help veterans transition to civilian and college life, the college increased its focus on such activities as training staff and faculty in pivotal contact positions to handle veterans issues, better tracking veteran student retention and success, establishing a veterans resource center and lounge, and publishing comprehensive web resources.

Milton Lopez, an Army National Guard veteran of Afghanistan and a SUNY Oswego senior, meets with Ben Parker, who is at work building a comprehensive set of veterans services for the college.
Milton Lopez, an Army National Guard veteran of Afghanistan and a SUNY Oswego senior, meets with Ben Parker, who is at work building a comprehensive set of veterans services for the college.

After a campuswide committee last fall recommended a greater emphasis on resources for veterans, the college’s Division of Extended Learning named Ben Parker coordinator of veterans services. A three-year SUNY Oswego employee who early on was assigned to visit Fort Drum for informational sessions, Parker was among the first to complete a new veterans services certificate program at Empire State College last year.

SUNY Oswego senior Milton Lopez, a former Army National Guard member and veteran of Afghanistan, believes a new day has started to dawn for veterans attending the college, whether as undergraduate or graduate students, residents or online.

Lopez, an Oswego resident, father, Centro bus driver and landlord, recalls how Parker dived into a situation about a months-long training deployment in California that would have immediately preceded Lopez’s departure, after eight years, from the Guard and its 427th Brigade Support Battalion. Both men thought it would be a waste of time and money that could lengthen Lopez’s already six-year, part-time march to a degree in accounting.

Parker “could have told me I have to go back and work with my officers,” Lopez said.  “Or he could have done what he did and made calls and developed contingency plans (for Lopez’s coursework). In the end, I did not join the deployment. … It feels good to have people like Ben around.”

Parker said that sometimes “veterans are frustrated trying to track down the right place to call to solve a problem as they get sent from office to office. I will get back to them, work with them and not continue the cycle.”

Helping hand

The anecdote points to Parker’s personal willingness — as well as the institutional will of the college — to improve campus services for veteran students. Higher education for active-duty military and returning veterans presents a complex national set of issues, but with a crystal-clear SUNY Oswego goal: welcoming, encouraging and supporting current and former military personnel in pursuit of a quality higher education.

“For me, personally, the reward is working with the veterans one on one,” Parker said.

SUNY Oswego aims to enroll more veterans, thanks to a significant increase in educational funding in the 2008 “Post-9/11 GI Bill,” a 2012 executive order from President Barack Obama boosting requirements for veterans services at institutions that receive military and veterans educational benefits and the proximity of Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division and many smaller military units.

A campus committee supported by Provost Lorrie Clemo includes members of Student Affairs, Disability Services, Financial Aid, Admissions and other key offices, as well as veterans advocate Mike Waters, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and 1970 alumnus. The group began looking at how SUNY Oswego could attract more of the 2 million troops that have returned or will return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other veterans.

Following creation of Parker’s position, next steps include assembling reliable information on enrolled students’ veterans status, conducting a needs assessment among veterans currently on campus, publishing comprehensive services and contacts in one online location, putting together professional-development workshops for faculty who encounter veteran students and developing courses or workshops for veterans making the transition back to school.

SUNY Oswego this spring received Military Advanced Education’s 2013 designation as a military-friendly college for “implementing military-friendly policies in support of our men and women in uniform,” the award said.

“You can say you’re military friendly, but veterans are going to look for things that show them the campus is military friendly,” Parker said. “It isn’t just a phrase.”