By John Dudley, University Communications and Marketing
Zackery Morales remembers how he felt arriving on a college campus after five years in the United States Coast Guard. He had expected to make a career of military service but changed his mind and decided to pursue a degree.
“I was very intimidated at first,” said Morales, 27, a St. Petersburg native. “I was one of if not the oldest student in most of my classes, and it was a real challenge. I felt behind, and I felt like I needed to overachieve. I wondered if I had made a mistake and should have stayed in the military.”
Morales persisted, earned a bachelor’s degree and is now enrolled in graduate school at USF. He works as a support specialist in the Office of Veteran Success helping students with military backgrounds navigate the same transition he once made.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Morales said. “It takes time, and it takes work.”
USF is home to nearly 1,400 student veterans. They are among roughly one million college students with military backgrounds nationwide. Research shows that student veterans tend to be older than traditional college students and are more likely to hold off-campus jobs and have spouses and dependent children.
For a long time, college and university leaders used the term “veteran friendly” as a way of conveying hospitality toward military veterans acclimating from a rigid environment to the more free-flowing atmosphere of higher education.
But the term eventually lost its meaning through overuse, according to Wayne Taylor, director of USF’s Office of Veteran Success.
“It became almost like a casual line,” Taylor said. “We hear it on Memorial Day. We hear it on Veterans Day. ‘This restaurant is veteran friendly -- they’re going to give you a free appetizer.’ We’ve gotten to the point that it’s so common to hear that phrase, veterans respond by saying, ‘whatever.’”
In its place, USF and other institutions with large numbers of military-connected students have adopted a “veteran inclusive” approach that recognizes veterans’ experiences and viewpoints and incorporates them into everyday campus life.
Taylor has made more than 20 appearances across the country to talk about the transition and hopes to see the creation of an official veteran inclusive designation for campuses that adopt its values and mission.
In presentations, he describes veteran inclusiveness as “providing a learning-centric environment valuing student veterans’ perspectives and contributions by incorporating their community’s needs, assets and perspectives into the design of policies, programs and practices. Veteran inclusive programs extend beyond students and recruit and retain faculty and staff who reflect the community they serve.”
At its core, Taylor says, veteran inclusiveness is a commitment to creating authentic relationships, growth opportunities and a personal touch that feels something like the camaraderie veterans experience during enlistment.
“Military-connected individuals have their own value system, their own cultural and societal norms, their own language and their own humor,” Taylor said. “We help our faculty, staff and students understand how student veterans might have a different perspective. They’re used to a very structured environment, and we’re trying to introduce them to an environment that is much less structured and encouraging them to explore themselves.”
Veteran inclusiveness at USF encompasses a broad range of programs, resources and support:
- Got Your Six Cultural Competency workshops help non-military students, faculty and staff, including resident assistants, learn what it means to serve in the armed forces and how that experience shapes veterans after they leave active duty.
- Dedicated orientation sessions are tailored to meet the unique needs of student veterans such as applying for government education benefits.
- OVS offices on each of USF’s campuses provide a home for student veterans and a connection to resources across USF.
- OVS staff helps deans and faculty members understand and accommodate unique codified requirements. For example, veterans serving as reservists’ can be called to duty at any time for events such as hurricane relief.
- OVS works closely with veteran-affiliated organizations on and off campus, including the Student Veterans Association, an independent, student-run group that collaborates with USF faculty-, staff- and student- focused organizations and builds partnerships at USF and within the Tampa Bay region.
The result is a community offering connections to professional networks and growth opportunities, veteran support organizations and partnerships at USF and throughout the region.
In addition to the 1,384 student veterans enrolled at USF this fall are 5,341 enrolled students who are dependents of a veteran or someone in the military, bringing USF’s overall military-connected population to 6,725 individuals. Recognizing the unique needs and concerns of this entire group is another important aspect of a veteran inclusive approach, said Jake Diaz, regional associate vice chancellor of student success and dean of students at the USF St. Petersburg campus.
“They’re just as much a part of military culture as the veterans themselves,” Diaz said of dependent students, who are invited to participate in events and activities hosted by OVS offices and their partners. “We want them to know that they really belong here.”
Todd Post, assistant director of the USF St. Petersburg OVS, joined Taylor, USF Tampa OVS Associate Director Reneé Amboy and USF Sarasota-Manatee OVS Director Carlos Moreira in laying the groundwork for USF’s transformation beginning in 2021.
“We all worked together to create a cross-campus dialogue around student veteran inclusivity,” Post said. “We knew we should be looking at where student veterans come from and what more we could do to help this very diverse pool of students. Over the last couple of years, there really has been a shift.”
Taylor said the transition was made possible through a shared commitment to student veteran success from USF’s leadership. Faculty members also play a vital role in getting to know military veterans in ways that help demystify the academic setting that may feel unfamiliar to them.
Kemesha Gabbidon, an assistant professor in the USF College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, teaches a class in cross cultural psychology that often includes student veterans.
As part of the class, she invites students to share their lived experiences, and student veterans in particular seem to appreciate the opportunity.
“I’ve had students tell me, ‘You make us feel like we’re real people,’” Gabbidon said. “I think it assures them that we understand what it means to assimilate from one culture to another.”
Like Morales, Ashlie Cruz has experienced USF’s embrace of a veteran inclusive approach and believes some of the most important moments occur soon after enrolling in school and leaving military life behind.
Cruz, a student veteran from Jersey City, N.J., arrived at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus following a five-year enlistment as a United States Navy hospital corpsman. She works as a Veterans Affairs Work Study for OVS and serves as a leader on the Campus Activities Board.
“It’s easy to feel alone in the process,” Cruz said. “When you can find an advocate, people who understand you and provide support, it makes a big difference.”