When Lydia Jackson left the U.S. Navy after serving four years, she was anxious and overwhelmed. She went from being surrounded by her friends and colleagues every day to staying home alone while her husband was at work.
“When you get out of the military, they don’t tell you what’s available to you. Nobody told me how to apply for veteran benefits or that I could get medical insurance from Veterans Affairs,” said Jackson, a Cal State Long Beach senior. “I feel like a lot of vets get overlooked.”
Now, Jackson is a student worker at CSULB’s Veterans Services, where she helps fellow veterans navigate their new lives as college students.
Veterans Services helps hundreds of military-affiliated students each semester with certifying their military educational benefits, connecting them with other campus resources they might need, and hosting events (now virtual) to foster camaraderie between fellow veterans.
“Many of our military-affiliated students are older or have families, so they have different perspectives and needs,” said Michael Barraza, director of Veterans Services. “Some have had multiple combat tours and have seen and been exposed to very challenging environments and situations, so to have an office specifically for them to reach out to and connect to regarding issues they’re having on campus is so helpful.”
Jackson, who is working toward a degree in criminal justice and wants to become a forensic specialist, said Veterans Services helped her from the first day she stepped foot on campus for orientation. Recently, she found out her GI Bill was expiring, but a Veteran Services counselor helped her find other benefits so she could continue her education.
One of the best parts of Veterans Services is being surrounded by people who are like yourself, she said.
“A majority of our staff at Veterans Services are veterans themselves, so we understand the struggle of other vets and we can relate to them and their needs,” Jackson said. “We’re able to relate to their problems and struggles or whatever they’re feeling.”
Veteran Colette Sprenger also found support from Veterans Services after being out of school for a decade.
She came to CSULB to get her master’s degree in criminal justice after serving in the Navy and working as an avionics technician but didn’t know how to use her military educational benefits.
“I hadn’t been in school in a really long time and I was so lost. It’d been 10 years,” she said. “Veterans Services was really helpful with figuring out my GI Bill. They were always there to answer my questions and get me the resources I needed.”
After receiving help with her educational benefits, Sprenger, who graduated in the spring, became more involved with Veterans Services. She was invited to speak about her military experience at a women’s luncheon and at VET NET ally training, which helps educate the campus community about how to be allies for veterans.
The events reassured her that there were people on campus she could turn to for help when needed, Sprenger said.
“Veterans are a really specific group of people, and you don’t know who’s a vet and who’s not just by looking at them,” she said. “It was great that they got people involved so they know they have a support system and are able to build that camaraderie.”
And on the eve of Veterans Day, Barraza said, “I hope that veterans can succeed by living happy, healthy and productive lives. I wish veterans can find those things they seek to fulfill their purpose in being. I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to work with you and hope to do all I can to support you while at CSULB.”
Looking ahead, Barraza said he would love to see the offerings expand to include extended events, such as retreats for student veterans to connect with each other.
“Our military is getting smaller and smaller, and as that happens, we have less people directly involved in the military so military-affiliated students become rarer and rarer,” he said. “Having an office that’s specifically designed to help these students with their needs is the key to making sure they succeed.”