Missouri Student Veterans Association
May 26, 2011
When 25-year-old Dan Sewell started college as an undergraduate in fall 2007, he was still on active duty in the Air Force. Sewell, his wife, Alisha, and their 18-month-old daughter, Gabrielle, moved from a three-bedroom home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to a small, two-bedroom apartment in Columbia a week before classes started. When he took his seat in his first course, he didn't feel as though he wanted to get to know his classmates.
While the students around him were talking about parties, Sewell had other worries. His daughter switched day cares three times because of closures or inadequate care. The bills were mounting at home, and in order to receive financial support for college, he had to maintain his grades. When he went to the Missouri Student Veterans Association's first meeting during the first few weeks of school, he discovered he wasn't alone.
"If I had an issue or problem, more than likely someone else had already gone through that, and we could relate," says Sewell, now a 29-year-old graduate student. "It really did provide a peer support group that was integral to my transition."
The MSVA is part of the MU Veterans Center and welcomes anyone who has been in the military, even if they are not an MU student. It has grown into a tightly knit community focused on providing financial, educational and emotional support to more than 520 students, some of whom are children of parents who are on active duty. The center helps veterans navigate the cumbersome GI Bill, find housing and even locate dentists. The center also offers referrals to help veterans with any post-deployment psychological issues.
Most veterans have had different life experiences than their 18-year-old peers. Sophomore Paul "Twiggy" Williamson, who wears a cowboy hat fitted with dead 5.56 rounds from an M16, cleared roadside bombs in Iraq before becoming an MU student. As a 23-year-old freshman, he says he couldn't relate to his peers.
"Girls in my class were talking about prom a few months ago, and I'm talking about blood, guts and glory that just happened a few months ago — two completely different worlds," says Williamson, now 25.
Williamson heard about the Veterans Center from Director Carol Fleisher. He says his involvement increased when he discovered camaraderie among the other vets who had similar experiences and interests. He's gotten involved with some of the organization's community projects. Williamson found what Fleisher calls the center's "big family." "We really get to know the vets well," Fleisher says. "They have babies, or they get married, and we go to the weddings. We even know their dogs' names."
Before 2008, there was no official veterans center at MU. Fleisher and four others were stuffed in a one-room office in Lafferre Hall. In December 2008, MU became the fourth campus in the nation to have a freestanding, full-service veterans center. On Nov. 11, 2010 — Veteran's Day — the center officially opened at its current location in the basement of the Memorial Student Union.
Off campus, MSVA members gather a few times a month at restaurants around town. Between jokes, bites of food and sips of beer, they focus on how to help the American Legion update its building and discuss fundraising ideas to fuel a future scholarship fund. That camaraderie also becomes important when financial support is dependent on academic success.
Sewell, MSVA President from April 2008 to January 2010, gave back to the organization that helped him through his first collegiate years. He and another graduate student created a course that teaches new student veterans how to take notes, study, take tests and develop other necessary college skills. Unlike many of their freshman peers, student veterans have spent years away from a classroom. "The class is molded to fit the needs of veterans and keep them in the seats," Sewell says. "We know retention is low."
The center hopes to change that by nurturing close relationships among veterans. That's evident from the uniforms and artwork of student vets that hang on the center's walls. Pictures of the vets also dot Fleisher's bookshelf. In one photo, Sewell — now vice president of Student Veterans of America — and two other student veterans pose in front of the Capitol during their visit to Washington, D.C. Fleisher remembers stories about each of them.
"The military is known for its closeness, but it has to be," Fleisher says. "Because if you are in combat, you better be close. You get to be close because you depend on each other. We hope to continue that community here for a long, long time."