Job Front: Sacramento State center offers support to veterans

For returning veterans, coming home can be a tough transition. Readjusting to the civilian world, looking for work, going back to school – all pose unique challenges.

In California, tens of thousands are making that transition every year; 40,000 veterans a year are expected to return to the state from military service over the next several years, according to the California Department of Veterans Affairs. Those service members add to the numbers that already rank California as the most populous state in the nation for returning veterans. More than 2 million veterans call California home, according to CalVet.

Hundreds of those returning veterans are reimagining their post-military lives at California State University, Sacramento, and at the campus’s Veterans Success Center, a resource and drop-in center for the university’s sizable student-veteran population.

They include Sean Johnson of Rancho Cordova, the center’s outgoing student president. Now a senior majoring in public relations, the former petty officer served nine years in the Coast Guard before enrolling at Sacramento State four years ago.

“I was looking for community, but also insight on how to navigate the educational system,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is the cultural transition from the military to civilian life. It’s a different language you speak (in the military).”

“It’s a major issue. It can be fragmented and a little daunting,” said Jeff Weston, director of the Veterans Success Center and an Air Force veteran, on life outside of the military. “We help acclimate veterans into being civilians again, help them explore the civilian sector. Veterans don’t want to be coddled. They just want to be put on square footing.”

Since 2006, Weston and the center, located on the third floor of the campus’ Lassen Hall, have worked to do just that.

Staffers, many fresh from military service themselves, guide the college’s student-veterans through the maze of admissions, advising on benefits such as the GI Bill and other programs to get a college career off the ground. Weston estimates as many as 300 to 400 student-veterans visit the center each semester, with questions about the GI Bill and other issues.

Beth Erickson, a professor of recreation, parks and tourism administration at CSUS , leads the Veterans Leadership Initiative. The class, held in partnership with the Veterans Success Center, mixes classroom instruction, team building and practical job-seeking skills to help student-veterans translate their military experience and leadership skills.

“When you’re a soldier, seaman, Coastie, you’re told what to do. You know your identity. Then you go to a college campus and they say ‘Take what you want.’ (Veterans) have to redefine their own identity. They have to negotiate the California State University system, the federal government, the GI Bill – not any of these are easy. We’re trying to give them a better college experience,” Erickson said.

Weston refers to it as a three-phase model: “Get in, get through, get to.”

First, “we get them in (to university). We want to demystify higher education,” said Weston. The center helps the new students get through by encouraging them to participate in student organizations and campus activities with other student-vets.

And by connecting students with Veterans Affairs and state Employment Development Department and local employers, the goal is to get student-vets into successful post-military careers. That will become increasingly important as more veterans come home.

Today, California college-age veterans continue to struggle to find work. The jobless rate for returning vets ages 20 to 24 stood at 37 percent in 2012, the latest year available, more than twice that of non-veterans, according to the EDD.

As much as for the advice, many student-veterans come to the center for the camaraderie they had in the ranks.

“The center is successful because of the students themselves. We’re watching veterans helping veterans,” Weston said. “They close ranks. They help each other out.”

CSU Sacramento’s Veterans Success Center can be reached through its website, at www.csus.edu/vets/index.html.

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