New Veterans Affairs Coordinator Laura Shigemitsu to address the needs of student military veterans at Cal State L.A. with compassion and vigor
University launches Office of Veterans Affairs to assist veterans, and students who actively serve
Los Angeles, CA – Though her path changed, Cal State L.A.’s new Veterans Affairs Coordinator Laura Shigemitsu has found a way to serve her country; by helping student veterans navigate the ever-changing GI Bill and assisting in their assimilation to college life so they may succeed and graduate.
Growing up in a military family, Shigemitsu, too, decided to enlist in the military, with an interest in the Navy. Tragically, at 17, while she was being courted by a Navy recruiter, she suffered a traumatic brain injury that derailed her dreams of service.
“I had to learn how to read, walk and speak all over again. And in the end, I was ineligible to serve, which killed me because I wanted to be part of the nuclear propulsion program,” she said. “I kept trying to get in, but ended up just being kicked out of recruiters’ offices in my early 20s because they now had access to my records. So for me, working with veterans in this way is the next best thing.”
Long since recovered from the brain injury, Shigemitsu believes the experience may provide her with unique insights when working with veterans attending CSULA who have suffered similar injuries. Fortunately, they are a very small percentage of the more than 800 “known” student veterans currently enrolled at the University.
“This is my calling. I found this great doctoral program in educational leadership. I’m doing my dissertation on female veteran persistence in college,” she said. “So this is how I’m serving. I wasn’t able to put on the uniform, but I now can do my best to help those who did.”
Before the Veterans Affairs Office was created, Shigemitsu worked in CSULA’s Office for Students with Disabilities in the TRIO program. Prior to CSULA, she volunteered for 10 years with the 100th/442 Veterans Association and the Go For Broke National Education Center, which preserves the stories of World War II (WWII) veterans. While there, she managed the Oral History Program, which conducted extensive interviews of WWII veterans, specifically Japanese Americans who served. She is also the current president of the WWII 100th/442 Veterans Association for Japanese American Veterans.
The Veterans Affairs Office at Cal State L.A.
The Veterans Affairs Office is responsible for ensuring student military veterans have access to a streamlined system of support. Besides helping veterans manage and receive their Montgomery GI Bill or Post-911 GI Bill benefits (which were recently overhauled), Shigemitsu and her team of work-study student veterans provides a variety of assistance to those on campus who have served.
The Veterans Affairs Office will also partner with the East Los Angeles Vet Center, which will offer free psychological counseling for students with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other issues. They will also focus on helping student vets adjust from active duty to civilian life and college.
“The great thing about the counseling the East L.A. Vet Center will provide is that it’s completely confidential. They don’t report it to the VA [Veterans Administration],” said Shigemitsu. “Women vets develop anxiety and depression at a higher rate than men, so we are going to be working with the East Los Angeles Vet Center and CSULA’s Health Center to find counselors who are specifically trained to work with them. We especially want to help women who have suffered sexual trauma in the military. Unfortunately, it is very common.”
She added, “Women veterans have a higher dropout rate than men, which is the opposite of non-veteran students,” said Shigemitsu. “Approximately two-thirds of female veterans have significant issues, and one-third of them drop out. “
Octavio Reyes, a psychology major and U.S. Marine veteran, who will be a work-study student in the Veterans Affairs Office this fall, knows from experience some of the stigmas that accompany being a military veteran. He has witnessed the uglier side of anti-war sentiment, and was actually spit on during one occasion. He understands why former soldiers looking to avoid negative experiences and interactions often hide their service, which makes it difficult for many campuses, including CSULA, to take an accurate count of student veterans.
“We face a lot of apathy when we get out. It’s not necessarily that people don’t care about what’s going on. There is just so much going on right now, such as the poor economy, that most people are looking out for number one. If the wars don’t affect them directly, they can often care less about veterans,” he said. “It’s tough. There’s a saying, ‘America is not at war. The American military is at war.’ So some veterans think, ‘If I can get by without people knowing what I did, then I will.’ It helps them avoid a lot of incidents where they’re asked to answer uncomfortable questions, or have to debate if what they did was right.”
CSULA’s VA Work-Study program, Golden Eagle Vets student organization President Keith Bandoske, and the Veterans Affairs Office will also work to build camaraderie among student veterans on campus by developing social groups and activities that will create bonds and develop peer-to-peer networking.
A long-term goal of the Veterans Affairs Office is to open a Veterans Resource Center. Shigemitsu and her team are trying to generate outside funding from organizations that could offer scholarships and grants.
“We would love to have a center that features computers and printing services, a lounge area, pretty much everything our students are going to need in one building,” she said. “That is our dream. In the mean time, we are looking for other grant and scholarship opportunities because some vets have already exhausted their GI Bills. We also want to support our students who have children, because having children and having to pay for childcare are other reasons student veterans drop out of college.”
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Working for California since 1947: The 175-acre hilltop campus of California State University, Los Angeles is at the heart of a major metropolitan city, just five miles from Los Angeles’ civic and cultural center. More than 20,000 students and 220,000 alumni—with a wide variety of interests, ages and backgrounds—reflect the city’s dynamic mix of populations. Six Colleges offer nationally recognized science, arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education and humanities programs, among others, led by an award-winning faculty. Cal State L.A. is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Jazz Orchestra and to the Honors College for high-achieving students, opening in fall 2011. Programs that provide exciting enrichment opportunities to students and community include an NEH-supported humanities center; a NASA-funded center for space research; and a growing forensic science program, housed in the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center. www.calstatela.edu