Proud to help those who served
With U.S. and POW-MIA flags displayed on adjacent walls, it’s clear this isn’t just any student lounge. It’s the Veterans Lounge at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
On this day, student liaison Eric Olson is checking in with visitors, asking about their day and enjoying a chunk of Halloween candy now and then. Olson and the other veterans chat about classes, their lives and gently tease each other.
“There’s a brotherhood here that we had when we were in,” he says.
Olson served five years in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, including two tours of duty in the Iraq War. He returned home ready to earn a college degree, but engaging with younger students, professors and administrators for whom war is an abstract, not a lived experience, wasn’t easy.
“The transition is really hard,” he says.
Which is why Olson appreciates all the help he gets from Augsburg. Like some other private institutions in the state, the college also offers grants to veterans for tuition expenses not covered by the GI Bill and other federal aid programs.
“They find every penny,” Olson says. “That way, we get to go to a nice school without having to figure out how to pay for it.”
New space offers privacy
But there’s more to Augsburg’s support than cash. The college found space in its new Oren Gateway Center for the Veterans Lounge, which has a locked door with a keypad requiring an entry code. That ensures privacy for the former soldiers and sailors who come here to study and speak freely, sometimes about sensitive topics.
“There’s enough people here to make you feel comfortable,” Olson says.
A few moments later, Andrew Norgard , a 26-year-old former member of the Marine Corps, pops in for a break between classes. “Eric and I are in here every day,” he says, referring to Olson. “We hang out before and after classes. We get to blow off steam with guys we can relate to.”
Adds Norgard, “Our life experiences have been vastly different than other students.”
As a student liaison for veterans, Olson also educates others about the real world struggles of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and differing communication styles between veterans and civilians.
Olson, who plans on teaching history to middle school students after graduation, says he once excused himself from a class when the professor showed a film depicting the experience of World War I soldiers. He’s also asked for the occasional day off from classes.
“If I say I need a day to reset, they say fine,” he says.
But sometimes civilians don’t understand veterans, especially when it comes to communication styles. Olson recalls the time a fellow vet bluntly asked a professor why he received a lower-than-expected grade. The professor perceived the question as aggressive, but that straightforward communication style is a hallmark of the military. The situation was resolved when Olson explained that.
A place to connect
The College of St. Scholastica also has a comfortable place for those who served in uniform to compare notes and unwind. “The biggest thing we do is have that space on campus for them to connect,” says Jessica Johnston, coordinator of the Veterans Resource Center.
Liz Freeman, a St. Scholastica psychology and nursing major who spent a year repairing jets at Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan, agrees. “It gives us a space just for us,” she says. “It makes us feel more a part of the college. It gives us a sense of belonging. We’ve just had a totally different experience.”
St. Scholastica goes out of its way to welcome veterans home in other ways too. Staffers and student workers construct more than 110 handmade cards on Veterans Day, routinely tackle government paperwork (freeing up time for vets to study) and organize visits from representatives of service agencies in the area.
And then there is Johnston’s personal commitment to veterans. “I want to know whatever you want to share with me,” she says. “I’m going to listen. I have time to listen.”
That means a lot to Freeman, who continues to serve in the Air Force National Guard. During her time in Kandahar, the enthusiastic 23-year-old volunteered at the base hospital, helping prepare wounded soldiers for airlift to a military hospital in Germany.
“I loved going to the hospital and helping,” Freeman says. “I knew I wanted to be a nurse, but that cemented it for me.”
At St. Scholastica, Freeman appreciates the efforts put forth by Johnston, the college’s Veterans Resource Center coordinator, on behalf of her and other veterans. “She’s a huge advocate for us,” Freeman says. “She makes sure we don’t receive academic punishment for anything military-related.”
That’s the way it works at Augsburg too, where Ann Garvey serves as vice president of student affairs. “We have a long history of paying attention to underrepresented groups,” she says, adding that veterans tend to return home from combat with a drive to succeed.
“They are great students,” she says.
See our handout, 5 reasons for veterans to consider our colleges — with links to colleges’ vet resources.
—By Todd Melby, freelance writer