Veterans Alliance: Serving Students Who Have Served Their Nation
While many of America’s young men and women have witnessed and survived the rigors of supporting current military operations around the world, arriving at college after active duty may prove to be nearly as daunting as the first day of boot camp.
A new student organization at California State University, Dominguez Hills has been created to help veterans adapt to college life, whether they are returning to their studies or beginning their path to higher education. The Veterans Alliance is supported by the Military Student Center at the College of Extended and International Education and provides information, resources, and a community forum for student veterans, as well as faculty, staff and alumni who have served in the armed forces.
Military advisor Erika Valdez says that the number of veterans seeking higher education has increased over the years, and especially this year due to the activation of the post-9/11 GI Bill.
“Veterans are a unique group because they come from a background of well-defined structure and direction…to achieve desired outcomes,” says Valdez. “Transitioning into the university setting, where information disseminated to students may be ambiguous or conflicting, can be quite difficult. It is important to provide an on-campus forum where student veterans can find the information they need from one common source and at the same time, help each other through a peer-support system.”
Michael Chesnut, a senior in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on environmental studies is the president of Veterans Alliance at CSU Dominguez Hills and established a similar organization at El Camino College while working on his general education before transferring to the university. He says he began both clubs because of the need for student veterans to be able to easily navigate the university’s administration in regard to enrollment, government benefits, and other student services. He also hopes to host a job fair at CSU Dominguez Hills to build a relationship between students and local industries that hire veterans.
“A lot of [businesses] hire veterans because they get a tax break,” Chesnut says. “When I separated from the military, I didn’t have [a college] education yet, but a lot of them who would have taken me wanted me to wait a year to ‘civilianize’ a little bit, because the environment is so high strung in the military.
“There are a lot of things that happen to veterans over the years that they won’t go talk to just anybody about,” he notes. “They need someone to relate to that will understand their particular situation. There is no one that knows better the problems that the veterans are facing than the ones that are currently going to college here.”
During his 12 years in the Marine Corps, Chesnut served with 1st Battalion 2nd Marines from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., guarding the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia border to stop the Iraqi advance until Operation Desert Storm commenced. After separating from the Marines, he was in the Army Reserves for 11 years and was deployed to Iraq in 2003 for a year. He retired as a staff sergeant in 2008.
Maryalice Swiney is a senior with a double major in political science and Africana studies. She enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1998 to gain more professional experience although she had already begun her college education.
“The job market at that time was down, so I thought if I joined the military, it would bring my skills up,” she says.
Swiney spent three years in the National Guard and four years of active duty as a supply clerk for Air Defense Artillery. After being stationed at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, she was deployed for seven months to Escon Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was working on the base when the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy destroyer, was bombed while docked in the port of Aden in October of 2000.
Swiney says that her military experience has helped her gain more focus on her studies.
“After I got out of the military, I became more focused on my subjects of study,” she says. “I had a different outlook on education and learning so that helped me a lot to become more disciplined.”
Salvatore DiGaetano, a junior majoring in public administration with a health services option, enlisted in 2003 after graduating from high school. He was in basic training when war was declared on Iraq.
“I knew there was a certainty that I would be sent over there,” he says. “As far as being ready, the Army takes care of you and makes sure you’re trained and ready to go over there.”
A chemical specialist in a field artillery unit, DiGaetano was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and stationed at outposts in Tikrit, Baghdad, and Mosul. He says that his decision to prepare for a career in health care was influenced by his experiences as a medic.
“I was not in major combat situations but helping out in hospitals on base,” he says. “I got to see the aftermath of combat. It changes your view of life when you see [soldiers] injured or pass away.”
Rafael Zuniga also enlisted in the Marines after graduating from high school.
“I did not have a sense of direction and had already made up my mind that I was not going to pursue a college degree,” Zuniga says of his decision. “Joining the Marines made me grow up. I feel that my experiences made me look at life in a different way. I now appreciate what I have and the opportunities that are there for me.”
As a member of Marine Support Squadron 371, Zuniga’s deployments as a bulk fuel specialist included a mission with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Belleau Wood and taking part in the invasion of Iraq. Six months after completing his active duty, he enrolled at Cerritos College and earned his Associate of Arts degree in administration of justice before transferring to CSU Dominguez Hills. He is currently a senior majoring in public administration with a management option and works as a employment tax consultant for the California Employment Development Department.
Chris Crane, a junior majoring in digital media arts, enlisted in the Air Force in part because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and because of the educational opportunities that would be available to him after completion of his duty. He says that his four years of active duty were “a challenging and rewarding experience.” His professional training included producing videos of missions for training, educational, or documentary purposes. While deployed to Afghanistan for six months, he joined convoy or expeditionary units in order to document missions for leadership to view upon a unit’s return to their home base.
“I drew from the organization aspects of my military experience to help get started on the right foot upon re-entering the collegiate ranks,” says Crane, who separated from the USAF as a staff sergeant select.
“The advantages of joining the Veterans Alliance include networking, information dissemination, and being around people with similar experiences as you,” Crane says. “In terms of moral support, the other members are more than willing to exchange contact information and help guide you through whatever pitfalls may befall you. More members would greatly increase these connections.”
“This organization will help incoming veterans transition smoothly and make the education experience more enjoyable,” says Zuniga. “New vets can get guidance from the vets that already know the ins and outs of the university, the different majors, and the requirements [they need to meet] in order to receive their V.A. benefits. Another thing the vets get is the cameraderie that they had when they were in the service.”
Veterans Alliance has been recognized as Chapter 199 of the Student Veterans of America, a national non-profit organization of student veteran groups from campuses across the United States.
For more information on the Veterans Alliance at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: The newly formed Veteran Alliance recruits members at Welcome Week. L-R: Salvatore DiGaetano, Maryalice Swiney, Michael Chesnut, Kiniko Willingham, and Rafael Zuniga
Photo by Erika Valdez