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Building a Base for Veterans at Northwestern

New student group, committee will help vets as they transition home

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April 28, 2013 | by Stephen Anzaldi

- This is the first in a series of articles on veterans at Northwestern.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- After 18 years in the military, Paul Knudtson still hears the call to service wherever he goes. It has followed him all the way to Northwestern University.

On a previous tour of duty, the U.S. Army officer helped rebuild war-torn towns in Afghanistan, facilitating talks between residents and government leaders for key infrastructure improvements like health care systems and school buildings.

Now an active reservist and student in the School of Continuing Studies, Knudtson has been a driving force behind the recent creation of the Northwestern University Veterans Association (NUVA) to advocate for fellow former service members as they make the sometimes difficult transition back to civilian life.

"Everyone comes to Northwestern on their own journey, so there is no singular veteran story,” Knudtson aid. “But we have shared experiences, and hopefully NUVA can be a central contact point where vets can trade stories or best practices when it comes to using their GI Bill, working on a degree or looking for a job. That's the goal."

Founded Sept. 11, 2012, NUVA is one of a growing number of clubs under the national umbrella Student Veterans of America (SVA). Chapters have multiplied since 2008 from a dozen to more than 700 at colleges around the nation, according to the SVA. That trend likely will continue now that American troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans move from the battlefield to the classroom.

But transition means more than what happens in class. It's about campus community and the chance to connect with people -- other veterans and civilians. It means navigating the tangled web of resources provided by myriad organizations, from Veterans Affairs and the American Legion to hundreds of national and local nonprofit service providers -- not to mention units at Northwestern, including student accounts, financial aid, and counseling and psychological services.

"College is a challenge for any student, but our veterans face additional hurdles as they look to make their mark," said Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs. "It's important we help veterans who are already here and those on the way, because we owe them a lot for their service, and they can make special contributions to the Northwestern community and society at large."

Since the military started the all-volunteer force in 1973, ending the draft, the Pentagon believes the military is the strongest it has ever been. But many college students are unfamiliar with the lives, history and service of the volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

This isn’t the first time Northwestern has seen an influx of veterans. After World War II, for example, “the tone of student life was much influenced by the maturity and serious mindedness of the large number of veterans among the students,” according to a passage from “Northwestern: A History” by Harold F. Williamson and Payson S. Wild. By the standards of 1948, when more than 10,000 veterans were enrolled, today’s veteran population is small at about 215.

However, Northwestern officials expect that number to grow significantly in the near future, and the University has created a veterans services committee. The staff, faculty and students of the committee are coordinating with NUVA to continue the conversation about veterans issues on campus.

“When we started, we found there were several pockets of people doing great work for veterans in individual schools,” said Natalie Furlett, associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Student Involvement. “But we saw an opportunity to establish a central place for student support.”

The veterans services committee recently conducted a survey of Northwestern veterans and dependents of veterans using GI Bill benefits to determine how best to interact with them. Respondents emphasized the need for help in the areas of academic advising, career services, health care and, especially, financial aid, given the complexities of benefits and scholarships. The majority of Northwestern veterans are married, working full time and living off campus, so the availability of online classes is important, as well, according to the survey.

In fact Knudtson, the NUVA founder, is a model for flexible study. When he received mobilization orders in March from his Army Reserve unit, he was forced to take a leave from Northwestern. But by working with advisors and faculty, he has arranged to complete his final credits via independent study so he can graduate in June.

In his absence, NUVA is in the process of electing a team of administrative officers to establish programs in support of transition services, outreach and recognition, and policies and procedures. Also they’re planning spring events around the upcoming Memorial Day holiday.

NUVA is open to all members of the Northwestern community. For more information, visit the group through Wildcat Connection or contact veterans@northwestern.edu.