Napolitano meets with UC student-veterans to discuss their concerns

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Seven years after his unit first shipped off to Afghanistan, 26-year-old Mike Drake says he’s still baby-faced.

The 2007 incident in Afghanistan that left Drake — the only capable medic immediately on hand — with the responsibility of stabilizing 11 injured soldiers in a firefight won him an Army Commendation Medal with Valor, but it didn’t help him get a job as a firefighter-paramedic when the economy collapsed a year later. Grim employment prospects led him back to school and eventually to UC Berkeley, where he will graduate with a degree in political science in spring.

Despite his youthful appearance, Drake conducts himself with the experience of a seasoned veteran. Since leaving the military in 2008, he has become not only the first member of his family to attend college but also a successful advocate for veterans in the Berkeley community.

“Higher education gave me a better purpose,” Drake, who is also the president of the Cal Veterans Group, said. “I was a combat medic; I didn’t know anything about bureaucracy or politics. Coming to a school like UC Berkeley gave me the opportunity to change.”

More than 1,300 veterans collecting federal veterans’ benefits are currently enrolled across the UC system, according to UC spokesperson Dianne Klein. Nearly 500 veterans, both recipients and nonrecipients of benefits, attend UC Berkeley alone.

As increasing numbers of veterans returning home from abroad have steadily expanded the university’s student-veteran population, Klein said UC President Janet Napolitano has taken a keen interest in veterans’ issues since she took office. On Friday, Drake was just one of 10 students — one from each UC campus — invited by Napolitano to the first meeting of a new veterans’ affairs advisory group in Oakland.

The meeting was the first chance many of the student representatives had to interact with veterans from other UC campuses, upper-level administration officials and Napolitano, whose no-nonsense approach left a good impression on some members of the group.

Jessica Garcia, a 28-year-old UC Irvine senior, said child care for veterans with families was a major concern for her going into the meeting with Napolitano. As a veteran, a military spouse and a mother of two, Garcia said discounted child care on UC campuses can be invaluable to student-veteran families but is often unavailable at affordable prices.

Still, Garcia said she was encouraged by Napolitano’s positive response to her concerns and was pleasantly surprised when the UC president’s office phoned the UC Irvine veterans’ center Monday to inquire further.

“That was a big thing for me,” Garcia said. “When she said she would look into the issue, she actually did. She didn’t give lip service.”

The meeting represents an important step toward addressing the broad range of issues student-veterans throughout the UC system face. Discussion topics at Friday’s meeting alone ranged from finding dedicated spaces for campus veterans’ centers and providing subsidized day care for student-veteran parents to improving financial aid resources and hiring more veterans’ affairs-focused staff, among other issues.

“With the student-veteran community, not only is there a lot of overlap with the transfer and re-entry community, there’s a lot of student parents,” said Ron Williams, program director of re-entry student and veteran services at UC Berkeley. “Student-veterans encapsulate many student communities of interest that we have here on campus.”

Connor Grubaugh covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ConnorGrubaugh.