Office of Veterans Affairs guides student-veterans on path to success
The transition from soldier to college student can be a culture shock. Enlisted personnel spend years taking orders from leaders, falling into line and preparing their bodies and minds for the physical and mental stress of combat. But in university lecture halls, course topics are open for debate and students ask professors questions and enjoy the freedom of choice.
The Office of Veterans Affairs wants to ease that conversion for the more than 450 military veterans, active duty and reservists on campus.
"At boot camp, the military lifestyle is impressed upon the recruits and they are living, breathing, eating, and sleeping the culture," said Laura Shigemitsu, coordinator for the Office of Veterans Affairs. "By the time boot camp is over, they are so indoctrinated into the culture it is second skin. But there's no official process like that when they leave. There's no boot camp for how to be a civilian."
The Office of Veterans Affairs helps student-veterans through pre-admission counseling, assisting with documents, making referrals to services and identifying offices on campus that are key for veteran support.
Shigemitsu also serves on the U.S. Army Los Angeles Community Advisory Board and does outreach to attract high-quality soldiers from the region. Reaching them early in the education process is important to maximize their benefits in a timely manner under the G.I. Bill.
"We want to expose members of the military and veterans to what it means to have a state education and what we have to offer here at Cal State L.A.," she said.
Though Shigemitsu has been industrious in networking since the post was created in 2011, the office's most important role is as a comfortable base camp where student-veterans can find others who share similar experiences.
"It's giving them a support structure with other student-veterans who are in various stages of the same transition," Shigemitsu said.
The office has trained several campus departments and divisions to promote understanding about what it's like to serve in the military and there are plans to start an ally program to help student-veterans connect with members of the community. Future plans also include special orientation programs and workshops.
"People want to learn about the veteran experience and how to better interact with them," she said. "There are all these people who want to see these student-veterans succeed."
Pablo Canales admits he has always been “lucky.” Canales, who was raised in Huntington Park, said that while other military personnel were sweating in the hot desert or stuck in barracks, the operations specialist second class found himself on a U.S. Navy goodwill tour to boost America’s foreign reputation. The USS Port Royal visited 12 ports in 10 countries, including East Timor, Palau, Thailand, Oman and Dubai, in 2004-05. “When we were at port, they set it up so we could play games against the local people. I realized how many people loved soccer.” But after four years in the Navy, Canales decided it was time for a new direction. “I thought I was going to be in the Navy until I retired. I was doing well, I had some money, I had some rank. There was no reason to get out during the recession,” he said. “And then I realized that if I stayed in the Navy, it would define me the rest of my life.” At Cal State L.A., Canales is learning how to be in charge of his future. “Getting out of the Navy made me feel like I was on my own,” he said, “and having a place like the Veterans Affairs office where I can go to do homework or relax makes me feel like I am not alone. That is helpful since I am the first in my family to go to college. My resolve to finish my goals is strengthened by the support I receive from there.”
Many aspiring actors work as servers while waiting for their career to take off—Calvin Gines joined the Marines. “I didn’t want to move to L.A. and be a bum,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ll do the Marine Corps so that I have a foundation. Then if I want to become an actor, I’ll have money and stability.’” The Hanford, Calif., native enlisted for five years and was deployed twice: to Iraq and on a Naval ship in the Middle East. Gines was a sergeant and worked in the crucial occupation of telecommunications. “We were the focal point for all communications in Iraq, so if something went down and we weren’t there to fix it no one could talk to anyone else. …Then the general couldn’t call anyone in Iraq.” The transition to college has been challenging, but the Office of Veterans Affairs has helped connect him with other students facing the same situation. “It is reassuring to have people who are experiencing the same emotions,” he said. Now Gines is working toward a theater degree and wants to make a film about his uncle’s experiences in the military.