For veterans turned college students, finishing a degree can depend on how much support they receive.
That's why a federal program has put caseworkers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on two Omaha college campuses, giving veterans rare access to a staffer who can help them decide on a career path or skirt bureaucratic delays.
The caseworkers are working full time inside the veterans centers at Bellevue University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, focusing on employment and educational counseling for current students, alumni or family members who are military-affiliated.
Before the VetSuccess on Campus program came to Omaha, VA staffers would schedule a couple of days per semester to meet with all of their clients at the military-heavy schools, said Melissa Steele-Lufcy, a vocational rehabilitation and employment officer with the VA regional office in Lincoln.
“We saw a need for counselors to be more present and more available for the student veterans,” Steele-Lufcy said.
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As VA employees, they can also assist with GI Bill payments, disability claims, mental health referrals or anything else the VA handles. Bellevue and UNO are among 94 schools across the country with on-campus VA workers.
Leaders at both colleges say they hope it will boost the support for military personnel, veterans and spouses, and it also means they can truly offer a one-stop shop for veterans who are students.
“All the service they need is right here on campus,” said James R. Biernesser, a retired Air Force colonel and the director of military programs at Bellevue.
With 40 percent of Bellevue students and a third of the staff military-affiliated, Biernesser said, the needs of veterans are already well-known. So the Military Veteran Services Center, opened in May, focuses instead on being a place for support, friendship and early connections for jobs after graduation.
“This center is more about a safety net,” Biernesser said.
Recent events included a workshop on mortgage options for military members and a session for employers, to better explain the value of keeping veterans on the payroll. The center also offers tutoring sessions and group discussions, maintains a quiet study space and holds job fairs.
And now, students can walk in and speak with a VA representative at any time — something Candice Watson, the VA VetSuccess counselor working at Bellevue, encourages students or any Omaha veterans to do.
“Instead of calling that 1-800 number, they can actually get a live person, and if I don't know the answer, I can call someone while they're here and get the answer for them,” Watson said.
At UNO, about 95 percent of issues involving tuition payments, benefit questions and the like can be handled without the VA, said Michael Connolly, veterans coordinator at the MaV USO. But for that other 5 percent, having a staffer on site has made a big difference, Connolly said.
Samantha Willis, a veteran of the Air National Guard and a UNO student, hasn't needed help from the VA counselor. But as a work-study worker at the front desk, she has directed quite a few students back to the VA office. It relieves stress for busy students and will become more valuable as more students realize that the counselor's available, Willis said.
“I know she's there if I need her, and that's a nice reassurance,” Willis said.
UNO's center has been open since 2011, and the VA case manager moved on campus this semester. She works out of an office next to a quiet study space and small computer lab, where students come in about 130 times a week to do homework or just hang out with fellow veterans.
Connolly said his next goal for services is to find new ways to reduce the number of first-year students who leave UNO.
Officials are determining which classes veterans are most likely to fail and will hold study sessions in those subjects next semester, Connolly said. Plans are also underway to try out a veterans-only new student orientation and mentoring program.
“We're always looking at what we can do that will add huge capability to what we can offer at this office,” Connolly said.