By Gretchen Kell, UC Berkeley News
At a time when wars are winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, UC Berkeley’s student-veterans program is expanding to accommodate an anticipated increase in the number of veterans expected to enroll here in the next five years.
On Monday, Nov. 10 just in time for Veterans Day, Cal Veteran Services will open a new headquarters in Stiles Hall as the result of a gift of more than $500,000 from UC Berkeley alumnus Coleman Fung, a U.S. Army veteran.
The funding also provides a comprehensive network of services — an additional academic counselor, paid internships for student-veterans, peer mentoring, a new website and outreach and recruitment activities.
“Veterans enhance our campus community with their life experience and dedication to public service, which is a core value of UC Berkeley,” said Ron Williams, director of Re-entry Student and Veteran Services on campus.
“Our program was being stretched thin, but this generous gift will enable us to help more veterans navigate to and through higher education.”
Williams added that the “transformative opportunities” offered by a university such as UC Berkeley will help student-veterans “continue to use their drive, work ethic and leadership to strengthen California and the nation.”
Fung, a 1987 Berkeley graduate who served in the Army from 1982 to 1985, said he’d like to see the program “become a model for other schools to adopt, with our student-vets serving as ambassadors to other veterans in the Bay Area who would welcome guidance about their educational options, especially about how to use their VA benefits, and how not to waste them on many for-profit programs.”
Currently, there are about 250 confirmed student-veterans at Berkeley, “and we know there are far more who either are not using their federal benefits, or who no longer have access to them,” said Williams.
By 2019, he said, that number is expected to reach 500, as more returned veterans seek higher education and as Cal Veteran Services’ outreach increases.
Now, the center five offices, a study space and shared areas large enough for them to study together, hold community meetings, meet privately with advisers and to “let my guard down, be myself,” said Thomas Wiltshire, a media studies major who was a combat cameraman in the Marines from 2005 to 2010.
“I think many veterans would agree that oftentimes we are emotionally on guard because we have had experiences that are very distant from those of our classmates and, understandably, are misunderstood by them. This space allows us to take a break from self-censoring and just relax,” said Wiltshire.
Stiles Hall, at 2400 Bancroft Way near the heart of campus, will be the group’s temporary home, funded for two years by Fung’s gift, until a permanent, on-campus site is available.
John Ready, a Ph.D. candidate in nuclear engineering who served for five years in the Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, earlier this year conducted the first-ever campus survey to assess the needs of student-veterans, many of them from underrepresented backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college.
President of the Graduate Assembly, Ready said his survey found that, like himself, many are “older, have kids, find it hard to connect to 18-year-olds. Some are unemployed or are in benefits disputes or have health issues — serious stuff like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. In our country, 22 vets a day commit suicide. It’s important that we have a community on campus and a place to go.”
He said more than half of those who responded to the survey described a physical space to meet either as “a great need” or “absolutely essential.”