Leading the Charge
It’s a familiar refrain at universities across the country. Student veterans feel like they’re getting the runaround. Student vets frequently require more interaction with registrars, financial aid, academic advising, career centers, student health, counseling, and disability services than traditional students, and navigating that bureaucracy can be overwhelming for students who have served. Some are relatively older and supporting families; others are acclimating to the independence of the college experience after years of military structure.
So it seems only fitting that UTSA—which enrolls nearly 5,000 students who identify as veterans, active duty, guard and reserve, ROTC, dependents, and family members in the heart of Military City USA—would do something to make their lives easier. “We’ve brought together the fragmented services for veterans, and we’ve brought them together under one office,” says Lisa Carrington Firmin, retired U.S. Air Force colonel, Bronze Star recipient, and UTSA’s associate provost for veteran and military affairs.
The Office of Veteran & Military Affairs has moved to the Division of Strategic Enrollment, bringing the Veterans Certification Office, the Hazlewood financial aid program, and the university’s VA counselors under its wing. UTSA is now the only public university in the U.S. that has elevated its military connections and operational veteran support to the VP and presidential levels. Those levels of support and representation will allow the Office of Veteran & Military Affairs to develop partnerships, institute policies and programming, and serve UTSA’s military community in unprecedented ways.
One focal point is to provide a true “one-stop shop” to fulfill the needs of UTSA’s military-affiliated students at the John Peace Library. “Is their need with vet certification? Do they need to meet one of the VA counselors? Do they need financial assistance or emergency funds? Is their need faculty support? Tutoring? Career assistance? Do they need to meet one of our community partners or drop a class or meet privately with an adviser? This is the central repository, and we help them with all of that,” Firmin says.
The new consolidated support services model will be much more efficient and personalized to student needs, says Sandra Morissette, professor of clinical psychology, teacher of military health psychology, and director of the Trauma Health Research in Veterans’ Experiences Laboratory at UTSA. While reaching the military-affiliated population remains a challenge, she feels the right people and pieces are in place for UTSA to lead the pack in veteran support. “[Firmin’s] leadership and the model she has developed have been vital in prioritizing military-affiliated student success,” she says, “and ultimately, I believe UTSA’s program could become a national model for other universities.”
The consolidation of services will also include the creation of the Center for Military-Affiliated Students, a place designed for students to network, socialize, and study while receiving career training and assistance from community partners such as VA Health, Mission United, DAV, and the Texas Veterans Commission. A third-floor study room and a fourth-floor hangout-and-networking space exclusive to veterans and military-related students have already opened at the JPL. Firmin says these destinations will give student vets the opportunity to bond with each other, make lasting connections, and ease their transition to higher education. “The sense of community, camaraderie, and esprit de corps that you have in the military—it’s hard to fill that void,” she says. “It’ll be a force multiplier for us.”
The Office of Veteran and Military Affairs is also developing a stand-alone student veteran orientation in addition to a credited course that walks vets through the transition to higher education. Such innovative approaches and attention to detail are driving UTSA’s reputation for serving student veterans higher and higher. UTSA was named a “Best for Vets” university in 2018 in Military Times and ranked third among the nation’s research institutions in Victory Media’s rating of Military Friendly Schools.
Heather Frazer, a student development specialist at the Tomás Rivera Center and a member of the Veteran Services Advisory Team, says Firmin’s leadership has positively impacted student veterans as well as staff and faculty. Not only has she encouraged collaboration and teamwork across campus, but she has greatly emphasized a holistic focus on student vets. “She and the rest of the staff affiliated with Veteran and Military Affairs,” Frazer says, “are dedicated to meeting the needs of the whole veteran—academic, financial, social, and emotional.”