Veterans discuss ways to improve campus experience at fireside chat

Chen Gong/Staff

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Veterans from around the Berkeley community gathered at University House alongside Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Tuesday to brainstorm ways to improve the veteran experience at UC Berkeley.

At the event, one of Dirks’ fireside chats, the group of about 20 students and servicemen — including graduate students, alumni and veteran service staff members — discussed the potential communication gap between student-veterans and the rest of campus.

John Ready, a UC Berkeley graduate student and veteran who attended the meeting, described in an email some of the challenges that student-veterans face. Many veterans, he said, are older returning students, often have children or are first-generation college students. Others may carry a physical, mental or emotional burden from their time in service.

“They know other veterans who are having a hard time adjusting to civilian life,” Ready said. “This adds to the everyday stress of being a student at a rigorous academic institution.”

Participants discussed the experiences of service members and suggested other opportunities for nonserving students to ask them questions, including the possibility of a campuswide forum and smaller group gatherings for veterans to share their experiences with each other.

“It’s critical to find ways to not only serve you (veterans),” Dirks said at the chat, “but also enlist you to help teach students to more productively understand the role you’ve played, the things you’ve done (and) to help change the culture.”

The discussion also examined ways to improve support systems already in place. Participants described challenges reaching out to UC Berkeley’s veteran population when the exact number is unknown. Ready estimated there are about 300 student-veterans, but at the meeting, participants said not all veterans self-identify as such and do not consistently see emails regarding support systems and services — meaning some may not be aware of their potential benefits as veterans.

Raymond Banks, a UC Berkeley alumnus and president of Cal Armed Forces Alumni, said he wants to encourage “face-to-face human contact and cross-cultural pollination” between students of different backgrounds. Cal Armed Forces Alumni is hosting an event for LGBTQ members, veterans and allies at Alumni House on Monday.

Veterans also discussed ways to maximize the potential of the Cal Veteran Services Center, which opened last November and moved from its smaller space in two offices in the Cesar Chavez Center. The new temporary center offers peer mentoring, career counseling and legal services from UC Berkeley law students. Luis Hernandez, an academic counselor at the center, said that new space allows for increased services on campus and that he hopes the center will be able to move closer to campus in fall.

“What is amazing about our veteran community here is that Berkeley provides an opportunity for veterans to continue to pursue a life of service,” Ready said. “It was great to be able to share some of these stories with the chancellor and to describe how our new Veteran Services Center provides a place for veterans to come together and serve the larger community.”

Contact Alex Barreira at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @abarreira_dc.sue