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Man on a mission: VetCorps representative, Steve Roberts, wants to make WSU Vancouver campus more vet-friendly

Steve Roberts is on a mission to make sure every veteran on the Washington State University Vancouver campus feels welcome, secure and appreciated. Roberts is the VetCorps representative for WSU Vancouver and is a U.S. Army combat veteran who served his country for eight years — the last two in Iraq. He took over as the VetCorps rep for the Vancouver campus this fall and is already creating a wave of change.

“The veterans on this campus, as on every campus, deserve nothing but the best of what their school can provide. After all, these schools are built on ground that at some point was fought for by veterans. We owe it to them, and if we fail them it is the worst type of injustice,” Roberts said.

Roberts is a WSU Vancouver senior majoring in personnel psychology and human resource management with a minor in business administration and a certificate in human services case management and administration. He was the driving force behind the flag display on campus in honor of Veterans Day and he organized the campus card-signing event. But, his plans for connecting veterans to campus go further than that.

US Flags on WSU Vancouver campus

VetCorps representative, Steve Roberts, lined the walkways around campus with more than 200 miniature flags in honor of Veterans Day.

Roberts is focusing on three key areas he hopes will send a message to vets and improve their college experience: Creating a veteran-friendly campus, improving information exchange with veterans and streamlining the link to veteran services.

Starting with the online portal to campus, Roberts points out a lack of representation of veterans in the photographs on the campus webpage.
He would like to see at least one picture of someone with a military backpack to signal that WSU Vancouver is vet-friendly. He demonstrates how difficult it is for vets to find the link to veteran services in the campus web the directory. He has been working with the the office of student affairs to update the veterans’ webpage and make it more user-friendly.

Roberts said it is also difficult for vets to easily access veteran-specific information on campus. He hopes to remedy this by installing dedicated veterans bulletin boards and information kiosks later this year. He also worked with volunteers from the WSU Vancouver Psychology Club to create three A-frame signs featuring colorful military images to promote vet-specific messaging on campus.

One of Roberts’ primary concerns is the lack of a “safe space” on campus for vets to relax, study and socialize with one another. Roberts would like to see this change for the 210 vets who attend school here.

“On our campus, vets go sit in their cars because they don’t think there is a safe place for them to be,” Roberts said.

Although he recognizes that every vet is different, Roberts explains that, for many, returning to civilian life can provoke anxiety. After being on guard in the military, many returning veterans do not feel safe in their surroundings without a fellow serviceperson to “watch their backs.”

“I don’t know a single veteran who hangs out in Firstenburg Student Commons,” Roberts said. “[Vets] have life experience. We have been to war. We don’t fit in. Some vets have serious post traumatic stress syndrome. They are in counseling. They have families and their families have stressors. For them, it’s a lot more than just school.”

In 2009, the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board signed a memo of understanding with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide services and training to facilitate veterans’ return to school under the GI Bill. Training to educate faculty and staff about the unique needs of veterans returning from combat zones was among the best practices identified in the MOU. The agreement also called for specific student orientations for vets and “safe zones” such as veterans’ clubs or associations.

Roberts points out that many campuses provide a dedicated area as a veteran’s safe zone. Eastern Washington University recently opened a 2000-square foot veterans’ area equipped with a kitchen, computer lab, lounge, conference spaces and office staff to help returning vets integrate back into civilian life. EWU currently has 600 veterans on their campus and expects to see a 10 percent increase each year.
Roberts is circulating a petition asking campus administration to create a similar space at WSU Vancouver.

“It doesn’t have to be huge – just a place with some tables and chairs, a couple of computers and maybe a coffee pot,” said Roberts. “Just so they have a place to hang out between classes and not go sit in their cars. That’s something the school can do to bridge the gap for veterans.”

Roberts believes orienting veterans to campus needs to go beyond ROAR orientation. Because of their training, veterans want a full grasp of their surroundings. They need to see the perimeter and the physical location of services in order to feel comfortable on campus.

“Even better [than knowing where services are located] is if you know a person. Instead of saying ‘That’s the office of the disability service coordinator,’ I can tell a vet, ‘That’s Sally and Sally works with vets to make sure you succeed’,” Roberts said.

Roberts explained that vets are unlikely to seek the support services they need because many see disability as a weakness. Instead, they struggle alone, especially with invisible wounds such as PTSD.

“As a vet, I may have PTSD and, although it’s bad, it is not a physical issue. I have all my limbs, so I don’t want to ask for anything,” Roberts said. He encourages vets to seek help, and he worries about those who do not.

“Veterans are six times more likely to commit suicide than the average population,” Roberts said. “Sally Dost is awesome about helping individuals and getting them plugged into what they need.” Dost is the campus disability service coordinator and may be reached at sdost (at) vancouver.wsu.edu or at 360.546.9138.

Roberts is also establishing the Veterans Friendly Listener program on campus. Modeled on a successful program initiated on the WSU Tri-Cities campus, the VFL provides vets with a network of faculty and staff who have volunteered to converse with veterans, their dependents or family members.

“It is a way to help veteran students connect with faculty and staff members who have an interest in veterans, their well-being and their education and life journeys,” Roberts said.

Roberts tries to reach out to every veteran he sees on campus.

“I can find veterans on campus, because there are a lot of giveaways. Some still identify with being a soldier. They wear their combat boots and backpacks, their badges and their jackets,” Roberts said. “Some [vets] aren’t back yet, some of them are still back there in the sandbox. Some of them are going to be there for a while. Some will work through it quickly and others it will take the rest of their lives.”

Roberts suggests that students who have not served in the military should approach veterans with sensitivity. Before thanking a veteran for his or her service, or asking inappropriate questions (such as whether they killed anyone), civilians should get to know veterans, said Roberts.

“It would be better to invite a veteran to a campus event or a bowling night –something that would make them feel like part of the community,” Roberts said.

Steve Roberts can be reached at 360-546-9190 or steven.roberts (at) email.wsu.edu. His office is in Library building Room 204.

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