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Soldier to student: UNF's MVRC helps vets transition from combat to classroom


Every barrage of machine gun fire and percussive mortar blast was a reminder that life isn’t guaranteed in a war zone. One wrong move or random bit of chance could end in tragedy. That kind of stress is unparalleled.


Matthew Brandenburg spent three different tours of duty in Afghanistan with the United States Navy. Since leaving active combat, he’s begun to enjoy the new stresses in his life — paper deadlines, unexpected quizzes and lots of reading.


“It’s a tough way to live — not knowing if the next day might kill you,” Brandenburg said. “College is tough, but here, I’m focused on my future, not the next life-or-death scenario.”

He transitioned from his standard-issue rucksack to a book-laden backpack as a community health student at the University of North Florida. That change can be a jarring process for soldiers-turned-students. They need to navigate an academic minefield of coursework, as well as a maze of benefits information and G.I. Bill paperwork. Getting acclimated to civilian and college life can be a difficult battle for veterans. But University of North Florida students have a major ally in their academic campaigns.


The Military and Veterans Resource Center has proven itself to be one of the premier veterans’ support facilities in the higher education landscape, leading to repeated accolades for the University. UNF has been named one of the most military friendly schools in the country by G.I. Jobs magazine five years running. The 2014 Military Friendly Schools list honors the top 15 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools nationwide that are doing the most to embrace America’s military service members and student veterans.


Ray Wikstrom, director of the MVRC, said these awards symbolize the many hours of service provided by his staff to ensure UNF veterans receive the very best services, resources and special programming to assist them in their transition from combat to the classroom, and on to their professional careers.


He said the center’s mission is to provide a broad range of student services and resources focused on the unique needs of today’s military veterans, service members and their families in order to enhance their smooth transition from the military environment to campus life, leading to academic success, graduation and employment opportunities.


“We’re there with them every step of the way, if they need us,” Wikstrom said. “If they need financial services, mental health counseling or simple transition services, we’ll either find a way to help them ourselves or link up with someone who can. No request is too small.”


The University transition

Wikstrom said the classroom environment is particularly difficult to manage for many combat-trained veterans. Their attention, which was previously fixed on exit routes and surroundings threats, must now stay locked on a professor’s lecture.


“It’s not easy to break years of conditioned training,” Wikstrom said. “It’s second nature for many of our veterans who served in war zones. So we help them get used to their new environment. The only dangers here are of the academic variety, so we try and help them develop the skills to be successful in the classroom and give them whatever support we can.”


The MVRC’s transition coach, Rich Carey, said acclimating to the University environment is difficult for many veterans — not just those who are combat-trained. It can be jarring to move from a highly structured military environment in which all of your duties are assigned by authority figures to the more open-ended expanses of academia.


“When paperwork is due, there isn’t an authority figure telling you it needs to be submitted,” Carey said. “There’s a distinct learning curve involved with college because the emphasis is more on self-reliance than that rigid organization’s structure. All this freedom can be overwhelming for some. But that’s why we’re here — to point them where they need to go.”     


Joshua Horne’s seven years of military service took him across the country and back, with duty stations in Naval Station Great Lakes, Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, Naval Air Station Jacksonville, the USS John F. Kennedy, Naval Station Mayport, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport and Fort Lewis in Washington. His greatest difficulty in transitioning to the university environment was simply being in the same place for an extended period of time and focusing on long-term commitments.


That's why the criminal justice major immediately gravitated to the MVRC when he enrolled last fall. The camaraderie he experienced with the fellow vets who spend time at the center normalized the college environment for him. And the center’s full-service approach to providing helpful resources to veterans smoothed out the transition from soldier to student.


“The center has helped me tremendously,” Horne said. “I have been able to be around other vets who are dealing with similar issues and can relate to not being the typical college student. If I have a question or need some information about my benefits or about my classes, the staff of the center is always there to help. Even if they don’t have the answer right then, they will always guide me in the right direction.” 


Celestine Chandler took a much longer and winding path to UNF than most of her colleagues at the MVRC. She served as an Army pharmacy technician during the Gulf War in the early ‘90s, but she transitioned out of the service when she became pregnant in the hopes of settling down. Even after transitioning to the civilian world, she didn’t fully leave the military behind. She spent a number of years at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., providing pharmacy support for thousands of active-duty and retired service members. But after years serving as support personnel, Chandler said she wanted to pursue a college career that could propel her professional career.


“I knew I wanted more out of life than being a technician, so I decided I needed to take some classes and get my degree so that, down the road, I could become a pharmacist,” she said.


She enrolled at Florida State College at Jacksonville shortly after moving to the First Coast in 2000 and eased into higher education by taking only a few classes at a time. But she encountered a major setback after injuring her dominant hand in a work accident — all of the rehabilitation and occupational therapy she needed to recover from her injury made it impossible to keep up with classes.


Once she got back on track and enrolled at UNF in 2012, the path to her bachelor’s degree has been clear. She enrolled in UNF’s Flagship Nutrition and Dietetics program and is impressed with the access she has to her professors and all the hands-on learning experiences offered by the nutrition curriculum. She credits the MVRC with helping her stay on the path to graduation, even during those times when life intervenes and makes things just a bit more complicated.


“I've met all these wonderful people at the MVRC, and they’re always there to help if I need it,” Chandler said.


She said her first exposure to the center was an orientation in which Wikstrom and his staff presented all the services the MVRC had to offer — a free computer lab, transition services and job placement assistance, just to name a few. The sheer diversity of the offerings was amazing, Chandler said.


“I've never encountered an institution or organization that is so dedicated to helping veterans every step of the way,” Chandler said. “If you just want to come and hang out with some of your friends, that’s fine. If you’re getting ready to graduate, like me, they’ll set up mock interviews for you to practice. It’s been a while since I’ve been on an interview, so I was really happy to have that resource available to practice.”


Now, with her graduation date in sight and internships to apply for, Chandler is grateful to have the MVRC's resources available to her. Even when it’s simply a location to take a break from the stresses of class, the center has a place in her heart.


“College isn't easy, especially for veterans who might need just a little extra support,” she said. “The MVRC offers that support, and much more. I’m really grateful to have been able to have access to such a top-notch facility during my college journey.”


Military hub

UNF’s commitment to providing top-notch resources to veterans is partly inspired by its location. Florida has the third largest population of veterans in the nation with more than 1.6 million, according to the most recent Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs annual report. The state is also home to almost 60,000 active duty service members, placing it in the top 10 nationally. And within the state, Jacksonville stands out as a bustling hub of military activity.  Area military installations include Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport, Kings Bay Naval Base, Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, Naval Aviation Depot Jacksonville and Marine Corps Blount Island Command. These facilities provide employment to more than 50,000 active duty, reserve and civilian men and women, according to City of Jacksonville data.


And Jacksonville isn't just a pass-through for many of these service members. More than 3,000 service members end up staying in Northeast Florida every year once they exit the service.


Wikstrom said the goal of the MVRC, which was formed in 2009, was to make UNF a leader when it comes to services provided to veterans. UNF established an institutional task force before the center’s creation and received a grant for more than $200,000 from the Florida BrAve Fund at The Community Foundation in Jacksonville. The center spent 2009 moving between different classes and meeting rooms across campus, but the construction of the addition to Petway Hall gave UNF a dedicated space for veterans on campus in August 2010. An average of about 180 student veterans have graduated from UNF each of the last few years, a statistic that makes Wikstrom especially proud.


“Each of our graduates carries with them a little part of UNF once they graduate,” he said. “The journey from solider to student can be a long one, but us here at the MVRC try to make it as smooth of a journey as possible. We’re always looking to do anything we can to help those UNF students who have served their country.”