By Vickie Chang
“I didn’t really do bad in high school — I just wasn’t above average,” University of California, Riverside, undergraduate and veteran Blason Taon explains. It was like breezing through.”
Taon adds that he was rebellious in his high school years. “I just wasn’t ready for a four-year university when I finished high school.” So instead, he looked to the Army.
“In addition to the education benefits, [joining the Army] was a great opportunity to be able to feel like I’m a part of this country,” he says. Taon immigrated to the United States with his parents from the Philippines at age 7, and he enlisted a few months after his high school graduation. He served in the United States Army for seven years.
A first-generation college student, Taon is now a psychology major at UCR. He transferred from Riverside City College, and when he moved to UCR, he worked with student veterans at both institutions. He is now the president of UCR’s Association of Veterans and Service members and a peer educator.
In the Army, Taon was a specialist who served in Germany, Georgia and Arizona, along with two tours in Afghanistan — one of which he volunteered for.
“On my first tour, I had a buddy who had told me they were looking for volunteers. He and his wife were about to have their first child.” Taon says. “If he had been deployed, he wouldn’t be able to be present for the birth of his child, so I decided to volunteer just in case he was chosen.”
This tidbit reveals qualities that Taon and many other student veterans have displayed as student leaders and as soldiers: They’re deliberate, driven, altruistic.
While veterans make up less than 1 percent of the overall student population, UCR stands strong with a reputation as one of the best universities for veterans pursuing a four-year degree. (Taon is just one of the 150 to 175 student veterans who self- identify as such at UCR.) For four years in a row, UCR has been honored as a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs Magazine. An entire cast of characters helps make this possible, from staff and faculty to the students themselves.
UCR was also recently accepted as a Yellow Ribbon institution by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The program agreement permits UCR and the VA to provide funds to cover all nonresident supplemental tuition and fees for eligible veterans in all majors, with no limit.
“We work with our students in a very hands-on, very personal approach,” says Chryssa Jones, UCR’s veterans services coordinator. “We have a vet-friendly campus, not just a center.”
Student Special Services coordinates programs and services for military-affiliated students on campus, and have adopted a three-pronged approach consisting of peer, academic and transitional support.
Programs specifically tailor-fit for student veterans include enrollment and financial support, veterans benefit advising, academic interventions, career development, alumni and professional mentorship and more.
For example, undergrad vets receive priority enrollment to select classes on the first day of registration each quarter. This allows them the flexibility to coordinate classes with other family, health care and military obligations.
But having a Veteran Student Lounge also means just being able to have a lounge to relax in and grab a cup of coffee in between classes while chatting with your peers, says Nathan Anderson. Aside from being a student veteran, the 33-year-old business administration major is also a peer educator and vice president of UCR’s Association of Veterans and Servicemembers.
Anderson, like many student veterans, has a family to support. The father of a 3-year-old daughter, he praises organizations such as the UCR Child Development Center.
“Overall, we feel really welcome at UCR. This is a school that embraces the veterans; they do what they can to help us be as successful as possible,” Anderson says.
After all, student veterans come with unique challenges. They’re older than most of the other undergrads who are usually around 18- to 22-years-old, for one. Many student vets say the age gap hinders their interactions with their peers.
“It’s probably one of the biggest challenges for student veterans,” Jones, the veterans services coordinator, says. “Just feeling comfortable on campus and finding out where they fit.”
There are also bureaucratic challenges, such as navigating paperwork and securing all the education benefits available via the GI Bill.
But being a veteran also has special advantages brought by military experience. Jim Sandoval, vice chancellor for student affairs, finds student veterans’ dynamism especially remarkable.
“We have found that student veterans are extremely resilient and dedicated to completing their education. That’s the foundation from which we’ve been able to build our program to help them navigate through some of the challenges,” Sandoval says. “They’ve been able to be successful in that regard through peer mentor programs and providing support to one another. We just facilitate the environment for that to occur.”
He adds that UCR very much intended to gain its reputation as a military-friendly campus. “Our former director of student special services, Lenita Kellstrand (now retired), was extremely dedicated to providing support for our veteran students. The other factor for us is the strong military presence in the area — we’re right by March Air Reserve Base. It’s always been part of our fabric and our culture to support our veterans and to support the military. It’s something that was developed over decades — and we still maintain the highest level of support for our veterans.”
The Staff and Faculty Factor
Staff and faculty also play a major role in the veteran support system. There are two staff and faculty veteran units on campus. The Veteran Support Team is made up of representatives from academic colleges and student support departments. They meet regularly to discuss the needs and concerns of student veterans and develop programs to meet those needs.
The Veterans, Military and Families Group is a military-affiliated, employee peer support organization that builds on UCR’s veterans outreach and community partnerships. Supported by the Human Resources, Staff Assembly, and the Office of Faculty and Staff Affirmative Action, it participates in community events such as the July 4th Founders Day Front Row Fireworks, the Riverside Area Veterans Expo and the Veterans Day Flag Ceremony on campus.
The UCR Career Center operates a mentorship program that pairs staff and faculty vets with student vets.
This dedication to creating an inclusive environment at UCR extends to Human Resources, which offers workshops to engage and retain veterans as UCR employees, assists with the application process and creates a pipeline of qualified graduates for campus employment.
It’s always been part of our fabric and our culture to support our veterans and to support the military.
Jim Sandoval, vice chancellor of student affairs
Breaking Down Barriers
“[Chryssa Jones] has been very helpful to my success at UCR,” Taon says. In fact, she sits down with each self-identifying student veteran who arrives on campus to make sure he or she understands the military benefits and the services and resources available.
“A lot of [UCR] professors are veterans too, and understand what we are going through. They’re really able to work around some of the difficulties surrounding our education,” says student veteran Anderson. “I was going through a divorce while I was enrolled at UCR, and all my professors at the time were willing to work around the things I had to do so I could maintain success.”
One unfortunate side effect of being a veteran on campus is the negative stigma that is sometimes attached to a veteran. The stereotype of the mentally and physically broken soldier could cause some to not identify themselves on campus as vets, says Jones. Sometimes, veterans are hesitant to self-identify because they may be treated differently based on others’ political views of the military. Jones adds, “Other times, they’re just trying to fit in and get on with their life.”
“Part of the military culture is to be self-sufficient, so some don’t want to ask for help. There are also some students who mistakenly believe if they come and ask for help from our office, another more deserving student won’t receive their benefits,” she says. “There’s not a limited number of services — we want everybody to come.”
Jones and the rest of the staff at Student Special Services says they are attempting to tackle this issue via outreach with other departments, staff and faculty to help create supportive programs all over campus. One example is the Veteran Ally training program, which enables participants to learn more about veteran-specific learning strengths and barriers, and how they can help. “This helps us achieve a level of campuswide support and opportunities for our student veterans.”
Taon, who graduates this year, says newly enrolled veterans at UCR should take advantage of all the support the campus offers. “Don’t wait for opportunities to come knocking at the door. As a veteran, you should be breaking down doors.”