Air Force veteran Ozea Brown didn’t know anyone at UNF. As an older student living off campus, Brown attended classes and often sat in the courtyard at lunch feeling somewhat out of place.
That all changed when she walked through the door of UNF’s Military and Veterans Resource Center on campus.
Opening a door to campus life
Looking back on her first visit to the Center, Brown, ’16, will tell you that what she found was more than an office — it was a portal to the University and other students. “The MVRC opened a door that helped me connect with the school,” Brown said. “As a result, I feel much more like an Osprey, and I have met many people through the Center and made some fantastic friends.”
With no formal class on how to transition from military to college life, Brown found it helpful to talk with other veterans and get advice. Her involvement with the Center also made her aware of funding for study abroad. In addition to a University scholarship, Brown was selected as a recipient of a scholarship from MVRC donor Michael Ward, who has donated generously to veterans at UNF.
“It was a really wonderful experience,” said Brown, a nursing student. “We traveled to Austria, toured a hospital and learned about the healthcare system and the role of nurses there, as well as connected with students from an area university.”
Brown began as a work-study employee at the Center in the spring of 2016. In January 2017, the Center moved to its new location in Founders Hall. Brown believes the move is a reflection of all the great things that were happening in the Center. “This location is more centralized, so it attracts more visitors and the added space provides room for events.”
Brown, who already earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at UNF, is getting ready to graduate in December with a second undergraduate degree in nursing. As she talked about nearing the end, Brown said she’s thankful for the people she’s met and the professional connections she’s made along the way.
“I’m so glad the Center was here for me,” Brown said.
Helping students pursue their passions
While on his first tour in Iraq, former Army Ranger Corey Dougherty stepped on a land mine. He did not lose his leg, but his injuries required a full knee replacement and months of rehabilitative surgery. As he recovered in a hospital bed in Germany, he thought about someday leaving the Army and going to college to learn how to design prosthetics.
As his tours continued, Dougherty witnessed more injury around him. After more than eight years of service, he can count nearly a dozen of the men he served with who now live with prosthetic limbs.
“Throughout my military career, I often thought about learning how to design prosthetics,” Dougherty said. “So now that I’m out, I decided to study mechanical engineering at UNF.”
At 31, Dougherty is using the GI Bill to realize his passion. Navigating the complex financial aid was what first brought him to the MVRC, a place he still frequents with questions. He said he owes a great deal of thanks to Diane Stover, the Center’s coordinator for outreach and recruitment. “I was trying to figure out the GI Bill on my own,” Dougherty said. “What I had been trying to work through for about three weeks, Diane accomplished in maybe 45 minutes. If she’s got to make 50 phone calls, she will do that.”
Stover said she and the other staff at the MVRC work with anyone with military affiliation, whether active duty, veterans, retired military or dependents, as well as those in the Reserves or the Guard.
“A big part of what we do is help students like Corey with financial aid,” Stover said. “The GI Bill is complicated and something that is difficult to work through without assistance. We know this is a lifeline for many of our students, so we help in any way we can.”
Dougherty said he didn’t know that colleges had veteran centers. “When I came to UNF, I was greeted with open arms, and everyone tried to help me to the best of their abilities,” he said.
Dougherty said he relies on the Center as a place to get information on classes and occasionally as a place to use the computers or simply retreat from the heat. “For me, they’ve been extremely helpful when I have questions about financial aid,” Dougherty said. “I can just walk in to the Center and get the help I need.”
Bringing people together
Jaime Plym arrived at UNF at the age of 28 after five years of service in the Navy. Though she hadn’t been in school for some time, she felt confident about the transition. After all, Plym had worked as a master helmsman and had been responsible for steering the USS Ronald Reagan, one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world.
Much like the movie portrayals, Plym and the navigation team worked on the bridge at the top of the vessel — surrounded by a computer system, large windows and a view of the ocean — as they navigated the multi-billion dollar ship in many tight maneuvering situations, such as busy shipping channels or at-sea dockings with other vessels.
Yet despite her level of military achievement, Plym found navigating the college system much more frustrating and difficult than wielding an aircraft carrier.
“The difficulty in transitioning was finding services and help for a nontraditional student,” Plym said. “Many people treated me like I was an 18-year-old who was still getting help from my parents, which I was not, so that was very frustrating. The MVRC was my saving grace.”
On the first day of classes, Plym met another Navy veteran in a biology lab, who suggested they go to the MVRC after class. Plym is still grateful for the introduction to the Center. “I felt like I found somewhere I could go if I had a problem,” she said. “It’s just a comfortable place for me. It’s wonderful to know that there’s a center on campus that brings people together who are dealing with the same issues you are." Like Brown, Plym also began working at the Center as a student assistant.
Now, years later, Plym, ’17, is a proud UNF alumna, who completed a degree in coastal marine biology. Along the way, she was a standout student. In 2015-16, Plym was recognized as the Military Veteran Student of the Year, selected for her academic achievement, leadership and citizenship.
Not only did the Center make her college life easier, Plym said she doesn’t think she would have survived without it. “There were many times that I wanted to give up, and if it weren’t for the people here I probably would have,” Plym said. “There are times you just need your peers and friends — people who understand — who will listen and let you vent. Without the Center, I probably wouldn’t have made it through.”
Piloting the Center
After 30 years spent piloting jets and handling assignments around the world, retired Navy Captain Bob Buehn can relate to stories of combat, deployment and sacrifice. And though his own military service may have ended, Buehn, as the new director of the MVRC, believes he has found the perfect spot to continue his commitment to helping veterans and military personnel.
“We see our role as championing success for all the military students we serve,” Buehn said. “If we’re doing it right, we’re taking care of them from the beginning of the admission process all the way through until they have a degree in hand and find a civilian job. That’s really what we try to do here.”
The University established the MVRC in 2009 to serve as an entry point for veterans and their families as they navigate the civilian and academic worlds. Since then, UNF has been named one of the most military friendly schools in the country for eight consecutive years by Victory Media, which honors education institutions doing the most to "serve America's service members and veteran students." Of roughly 16,000 students at UNF, approximately 8 percent or 1,300 are military affiliated.
Buehn began working at the Center nearly two years ago administering scholarships in a position funded by a Michael Ward Foundation grant. In July, he stepped in as director after Ray Wikstrom retired.
“Everyone here is very welcoming, and we work to make the college transition easier or simply to help in any way we can,” Buehn said. “What makes us happiest is to meet someone who’s now a part of the community with a good job who says that one of the things that made it all possible was the Military and Veterans Resource Center at UNF. That’s what we strive for.”