GVSU awarded gold status for military friendliness

GVL/Luke Holmes

GVL/Luke Holmes

Bennett Slavsky

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Grand Valley State University has been awarded gold status for the second consecutive year by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, accomplishing the highest level of military student friendliness.

The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency has seven core criteria to determine the level of friendliness a school has toward our nations heroes, and awards are given out accordingly—bronze, silver and gold. To achieve gold status, a school must have met six or more of the criteria. GVSU hit all seven.

The criteria are as follows: there must be an established process for identification of current student veterans; there must be a veteran specific website; an active student-operated veterans club or association; veteran-specific career services, resources and advising; an on-campus veteran’s coordinator; a system to evaluate and award credit based on prior military training and experience; and the monitoring and evaluation of student veteran academic retention, transfer and graduation rates.

It is an honor to have been awarded gold status, but the award wasn’t given out by chance. GVSU has worked hard over the past few years to become as welcoming to military members and their families as possible. Because of the increasing friendliness to vets, as well as new amendments to the GI Bill, the student veteran population at GVSU has more than tripled since 2009.

Veteran awareness and smooth transitions into student life is a mindset that comes from the top at GVSU, with President Thomas Haas being a Coast Guard veteran. Additionally, Steven Lipnicki, the assistant dean of students, was just young enough to avoid the Vietnam War draft, but saw plenty of his generation go to war. That thought is something Lipnicki has held with him throughout his entire life. He started working with returned veterans in the mid 1990s to help assimilate them back into society, and has carried that work to his position at GVSU.

“Working with veterans is the most rewarding thing I do, on campus and beyond,” Lipnicki said, “We want to make this a welcoming place for vets and make their transition as smooth and seamless as possible. Some of the largest and most common challenges for veterans are academic preparation, connecting with their peers on campus, changing from a military mindset and lifestyle to campus life and financial issues.”

It is a common misconception that if students serve four years in the military they would have a full ride to college. While serving in the military will greatly reduce the cost of college, it is not a guarantee everything will be paid in full.

Often, military students will already have families to support upon entering a university. That means they will need to find affordable housing for more than just themselves, which can be exceptionally difficult in West Michigan. However, GVSU has programs in place that help veterans find affordable housing.

Not only does GVSU have programs to help find a reasonable cost of living, but there are also programs to help military students assimilate into campus life, such as the Peer Advisors of Veteran Education (PAVE). GVSU was the 13th school nationwide to adopt the PAVE program, which pairs upperclassmen veterans with incoming military students to help ease their transition into college.

“It’s often difficult for veterans to connect with their peers on campus,” said Samantha Rose, PAVE team leader and U.S. Army veteran. “Generally they are a lot older than most students and have a different frame of mind. PAVE is essentially a lifeline for incoming vets to pair them with someone who already knows the ropes.”

Rose said GVSU’s veteran awareness has drastically improved in recent years.

“When I first came to GVSU in the fall of 2014, I didn’t know about PAVE or any other programs available for vets,” she said. “Now it is something you fill out on your application and you are automatically enrolled in the program, so there is no disconnect.”

While university officials are proud of the gold status award, they said there is more work to be done for future Laker veteran students. Lipnicki spoke of attracting more female veterans to campus, as well as getting family members of veterans more involved with campus life. In the coming years, Lipnicki and Rose both hope for more in-depth training for faculty and staff regarding veteran awareness.