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Military Veterans at UWM Help Create Programs to Serve Their Peers

Dennis Felber Photography

More than 25,000 students began the fall semester last week UW-Milwaukee. About 1,000 are military veterans. More vets attend UWM than any other university in a six-state region.

While you might find military veterans at lots of places on campus, you’re sure to run across a few at the Military and Veterans Resource Center (MAVRC). It's tucked into a corner of the student union. Daniel Kafka has cracked open the book he just bought for his Italian language class. But he stops to shoot the breeze with a half-dozen other vets at the center. While it's a place he frequents today, Kafka says he wasn't sure about visiting, when he first heard about the center.

"I was really leery at first, 'cause the whole point of being a veteran is to be a civilian again, and I was worried that coming into a center that's all veterans would make me feel like I was in the Army again. But that's not the case. This is probably the best place on campus, if you ask me. We talk about anything under the sun," Kafka says.

Erin Schraufnagel, who served in the Marines, also sings the praises of the resource center, saying the people there are "not going to be talking about high school prom." She calls MAVRC "that kind of safe area where we can kind of come in and know we’re among people who understand our sense of humor, they’re going to really kind of share our life story, and maybe we’ve all been places or deployed together or served in the same branches, same jobs, and it’s like speaking the same language."

Schraufnagel says there are a lot of things that separate veterans from the general student population -- including the fact that many are older and already have families. So, she says, they're more likely to have concrete goals.

"We’re definitely here to get the job done and move on, ‘cause most of us want to get back out into the working world," Schraufnagel says.

Yet Schraufnagel says veterans do share some of the same concerns as the rest of the student body, such as how to pay for school. It’s a worry, even though veterans have access to resources, such as the GI Bill.

"I was in for nearly 12 years, but most of it was Reserves, so I don’t actually rate 100 percent of that GI Bill, so I had to take out some student loans, which was a little bit more tricky," Schraufnagel says.

To help vets navigate the challenges, UWM has established a military benefits office. And the campus is unique in Wisconsin, in that it's the only one with an on-site representative from the Veterans Administration. Gretchen Schuttey connects veterans to services, such as career counseling and medical and mental health help.

"Some veterans do experience anxiety, and I want to ensure that they have addressed that to the extent that they are receiving services at the VA and that they then connect with the Accommodation Resource Center here on campus to ensure that they have every opportunity to be as successful as possible in the classroom," Schuttey says.

UWM didn't realize it would become such a popular university for veterans. But it has caught on, according to Jayne Holland. She works at MAVRC.

"For the most part we feel that it's word of mouth, and it just seems that the veterans that are from here, come back home to this area," Holland says.

In part, credit for the enrollment boom could lie with the active vets on campus. A couple years ago, they founded a local chapter of Student Veterans of America. It successfully lobbied to create the resource center in the union. Navy vet John Rizzo says veterans have done a lot to improve the lives of their peers on campus.

"When I go to the library or go anywhere else and if I see someone that I've seen around in school that’s a veteran, if I haven't seen them coming here, I do approach them and I talk to them and I say, 'is there something that we’re not doing that we should be doing to draw you to be able to want to come here and talk with other veterans and to hang out and be a part of this,'" Rizzo says.

And, Rizzo says, their work isn’t done. Beyond reaching out to others at UWM, the student veterans are working with peers on other campuses to raise money to help homeless vets get back on their feet.

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