UNC-Chapel Hill becomes the 11th public university in North Carolina to open a campus veterans center.
The gulf between the distinctive cultures of academia and the military can look pretty wide. Not to Amber Mathwig, though.
“I don’t see this humongous gap,” said Mathwig, who just started work as UNC-Chapel Hill’s first ever Student Veteran Assistance Coordinator. “It’s more of an adjustment period that tends to create some hurdles for people."
"And all hurdles are clearable even if we just have to knock them down so they’re no longer there," she said.
Mathwig is a ten year Navy vet and is working on a master’s degree at UNC-Greensboro, where she helped found that university’s veterans center. Now, at Chapel Hill, she’s the go-to person for students with military ties.
“They are navigating this university system for the very first time and they probably also have other responsibilities such as families to take care of,” she said. “They’re already older, so they’re coming in with a little bit different background than what a lot of people bring in.”
In the past two years, the UNC system has seen a 13 percent jump in the number of people using military education benefits, which includes active duty service members, veterans, and dependents.
Eleven of North Carolina’s 16 public universities have opened campus veterans centers, all in the past three years. And most now have at least one full-time staff member like Mathwig.
At East Carolina University, another Navy vet, Nicole Jablonski, is Assistant Director of Student Veteran Services. She says the job means helping veterans understand university life -- and sometimes helping the rest of the campus understand the vets.
“Many people are really interested in hearing about the military culture but they may not go about it in the best way,” she said.
Jablonski said veterans sometimes hear questions from fellow students along the lines of, “Did you see anyone die?” “Did you kill anyone?” or “Do you have PTSD?”
While a few student vets do have post-traumatic stress disorder, they typically have it well under control before enrolling. Much more common for ECU student vets are problems with the complex VA benefits paperwork, and for some, dealing with the sense that their younger peers are consumed by frivolous things.
“They’re always frustrated when the student is complaining that the professor is giving a lot of homework, or their parents don’t want to pay their cell phone bill,” Jablonski said.
“Student veterans are always saying (non-veteran students) don’t know what real problems look like. So we always talk to student veterans and let them know that these traditionally aged students are just like any other set of diverse population. You have to learn about their culture and accept and act respectfully with it.”
And once they realize that they have a place on campus where they can vent frustrations, trade a little military lingo, and talk with people who ‘get it’, they feel more comfortable going back out and working with their new peers.
“We really want the student veterans not to keep tightly within that veteran group,” Jablonski said. “They’re now veterans who are in the civilian world.”
At UNC-Chapel Hill, with so many veteran students now, Provost Jim Dean said it was clearly time to bring in a staff member to serve them.
“We’re just becoming more aware that the needs of veteran students aren’t necessarily being met by the more generic services that we offer through Student Services,” Dean said.
In one more measure of the university’s interest in becoming more veteran-friendly, Dean himself recently carved six days out of his schedule to go through a kind of Pentagon boot camp aimed at helping civilian leaders in business and academia better understand the military.
Other administrators at Carolina also are enthusiastic about having more veterans enroll.
“Even the ones who don’t have combat experience have had two, three, four, sometimes more years of maturation and independence out in the world that they then bring back to the classroom,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp. “They add a perspective that just certainly enriches the experience for all of our students.”
In short, Crisp says, the veteran students don’t just learn, they also teach.