Two years ago, St. Thomas embarked on a mission to become the most veteran-friendly campus in the Upper Midwest and opened a center to help veterans succeed in all aspects of their lives. St. Thomas was recently listed as one of the top-ranked schools for veterans by the U.S. News and World Report 2020 Best Colleges rankings, in large part thanks to the Veterans Resource Center, which proudly supports over 200 veteran students on campus. It has grown into more than just a room in the lower levels of Murray-Herrick Campus Center – it’s become a home.
“There’s an importance to having a space on campus for a veteran,” said Norman Ferguson, director of Veterans Services. “They’re around individuals who have gone through similar situations. They can relate to each other, talk to each other in a way that they understand what’s going on.”
Growing students, offerings
Ferguson has been directing the center since its opening and has seen the number of veteran students grow from 170 to 210. He’s been instrumental in shaping the vision of the center and helping to create opportunities for veterans to connect and thrive on campus.
From financial seminars to a full-time academic adviser, the center provides a variety of resources for students. Given the importance of the emotional and mental well-being of its students, the center co-hosts mental health conferences with groups like the Veterans Administration and St.Thomas’ Counseling and Psychological Services. Students can also attend sleep and nutrition health fairs, PTSD awareness conferences, and drop-in sessions featuring different departments on campus, such as the library, the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, and the Small Business Development Center.
The center also has opportunities for nonveteran students to engage with the veteran population. Green Zone training, an educational resource, is an option for faculty or staff who are interested in learning more about military-affiliated students and their experiences. Therapy dogs at the library – a popular event during finals week – is a hot spot for veteran and nonveteran students alike.
Additionally, the center makes active strides to keep the financial side of education as straightforward and manageable as possible. St. Thomas offers the Yellow Ribbon program to both undergraduate and graduate students, which helps qualifying veterans pay for tuition by matching the university’s financial aid offer.
'How hasn't it impacted my life?'
Beyond educational and financial resources, though, the Veterans Resource Center has dramatically changed the campus environment for veteran students by giving them a physical gathering place – and they’ve built a community here.
“The camaraderie between veteran students is truly strong,” said Ferguson. “They’re here to learn, but they all have different experiences, different lives, different backgrounds ... and those who come in, they can find each other.”
Many of the students who utilize the center are in the same cohort, and having a space to work, converse and study together only serves to deepen those bonds of friendship.
When asked about how the center has impacted her life, senior neuroscience major Allison Kruse responded, “A better question would be how hasn’t it impacted my life? We have this space where we can come together, a place that incorporates our history into our education. We can talk about shared experiences and know that there are other people who understand what our lives are like.
“We all have a super strong bond,” Kruse added, a joyful smile on her face.
Ben Burns, a senior entrepreneurship major, emphasized a similar love for the center.
“It has had an enormous impact on my life,” he said. “I went from having almost no friends at school this year to basically having my entire life now surrounded around [the Veterans Resource Center]. As the president of the veterans club, I've dived into veteran services a lot more because of this place, and so the center’s changed everything about my experience here on campus.”
Veteran students are equipped with valuable skills for life after school as well, Ferguson said. He listed leadership, discipline and time management as some of the most important soft skills that veterans possess.
“Our mission is to make sure, to the best of our ability, that student veterans are successful not only while they are on campus and taking classes, but beyond,” he said. “They’re dedicated, driven, and they’re also leaders. They have world experience, and have lived and worked and dealt with people in diverse situations, so they have respect, too.”
St. Thomas was recently listed as one of the top-ranked schools for veterans by the U.S. News and World Report 2020 Best Colleges rankings. Looking ahead, the center is on a solid path to maintain that track record.
According to Ferguson, a marketing plan is in the works to help raise awareness about how the center serves veteran students and enriches their campus experience. He hopes that St. Thomas can be the answer for veterans who are seeking a home for the next stage of their life.
“We’ve done a lot of good work,” he said. “And now we’re going to start telling our story.”