Military veteran students, employees find unique bonds among Virginia Tech veterans groups
When she was 19, Janie Rhodes joined the U.S. Navy, and ultimately spent the next six years in military service, including seven months on a ship in the Mediterranean and Red seas.
Her role in the Navy as an electronics technician nuclear led her to Virginia Tech, where she entered in the fall of 2020 with plans to major in industrial and systems engineering.
As a new Hokie, Rhodes wanted to meet other students with whom she could relate. COVID-19 made those early connections hard, but this year, Rhodes found a small but growing student group that has helped her to discover her place. It is Veterans@VT.
The organization is the Virginia Tech chapter of the Student Veterans of America, and its purpose is to connect student veterans at campuses across the country.
At Virginia Tech, Veterans@VT is one of at least two groups that seeks to bring together veterans who study or work on campus.
The Virginia Tech Veterans Caucus is another. The caucus, formed in 2015, advocates for university employees and students and seeks to improve and support their experiences as Hokies.
Both organizations are small in number and are working to rebuild after a year that forced them to meet virtually due to the pandemic. Members of both of these groups will participate in the Veterans Day National Roll Call on Nov. 11 at 1:30 p.m. at the Pylons to remember service members who have fallen in the line of duty since the start of the Global War on Terrorism.
There are numerous other efforts to support veterans campuswide, from services offered through the university’s Office of Veteran Services to plans for a new Clemente Course program specifically for veterans in need.
Also, for 2020-21, Virginia Tech achieved a silver rating as a military friendly school by VIQTORY – a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business that connects the military community to civilian employment and educational and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Many of Veterans@VT’s organized activities are focused on socializing. The group, which meets twice a month, has organized several tailgates this football season.
Adam Meyer, a student who served in the Army for six years, is president of Veterans@VT. Meyer, 32, said adjusting to classes and campus life as an older, non-traditional student is a challenge for many veterans. That’s where getting to know other veterans is helpful.
“It’s commonality,” he said. “It’s easier to talk to people who are my own age or have been through the stuff that I’ve been through.”
“A lot of guys struggle with getting out and getting back into a civilian mindset,” said Meyer, who is majoring in computational modeling and data analytics. “That’s some of those things that we try to help with, kind of integrating people back.”
Rhodes, 27, said she feels the same.
“There’s a lot of growing up college students do,” she said. “I know what it was like to not see my family for years. I know what it was like to be gone from the U.S. for seven months and to have to stay at work for 24 hours a day. Everyone has some stories like that.”
Similarly, connection is a goal for the Virginia Tech Veterans Caucus, said Elvis Rosario, who is co-chair of the group, a U.S. Army veteran, and an emergency coordinator with Virginia Tech Emergency Management.
The group, composed of mostly university employees, aims to meet once a month and is open to veterans of all military branches as well as military family members and those who are supportive of the caucus mission.
Members discuss military benefits and policies and also gather socially. Rosario said he wants to continue growing the group and welcomes new university members.
The caucus has a listserv of 106 names, though there are approximately 250 employees self-identified as military veterans, Rosario said.
“That leaves us with a lot of contacts out there that we would like to connect with,” he said.
Juan Cordero chairs the caucus, works with Veterans@VT, and is a military benefits specialist for the Office of Veteran Services at Virginia Tech.
“It’s a very different environment, to go from the military where it’s more rough and OK to not be as refined to academia,” said Cordero, a former Marine Corps reservist. “It’s nice sometimes for veterans to sit down and share the stories that won’t make someone gasp.”
There are some initiatives in the works, including the reopening of a lounge, called the VetZone, for veterans and military family members, located in the Johnston Student Center on campus. It has been closed because of renovations at the center. Currently, there is a temporary VetZone lounge located in Squires Student Center.
Also, Veterans@VT is in the process of joining a new statewide student veterans council that includes universities across Virginia, Meyer said. The council will focus on policies and advocacy for the state’s student veterans.
“The best advice I can say is to find other veterans,” Rhodes said. “It doesn't matter what branch.”