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
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
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
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.”
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.”
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
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 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,”
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.
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.
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
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
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.”