COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Aaron Bricco was only 15 on September 11, 2001, but he knew soon after that he wanted to do something to serve and protect his country after the United States suffered the largest terrorist attack in history. A few years later, at age 19, he enlisted in the Army and went on to serve seven years in artillery combat arms, including two deployments to Iraq.
Now at age 29, Bricco is an undergraduate engineering student, self-described “math nerd” and the recently elected president of TerpVets, the University of Maryland’s student veterans organization. He also spent last year working as a peer facilitator in an innovative University of Maryland-led program designed to ease veterans’ transition to college life.
As record numbers of veterans are returning to college under the post-9/11 GI Bill, college campuses need to build support systems to address the unique needs and challenges that student veterans face and to facilitate their personal and academic success.
To help fulfill this need, the Maryland Veterans Resilience Initiative (MaVRI), directed by Family Science Professors Sally Koblinsky and Leigh Leslie in the UMD School of Public Health and funded by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has been working to enhance programs for student veterans at Maryland colleges and universities since 2012.
MaVRI aims to build peer support systems for student veterans and service members, helping them to make the transition to student life and accomplish their educational and personal goals. Student veteran leaders from the College Park campus, trained by MaVRI, have been collaborating with other state colleges and universities to establish and energize new student veteran organizations, create student veteran orientation programs, advocate for student veteran centers, and assist with other activities identified by the partner campuses. In addition to the six partner campuses, which include Bowie State University and Prince George’s Community College, many across the state have taken notice.
On Friday, November 7th, MaVRI sponsored a training program, “Facilitating Veteran Student Success,” which brought together 120 participants from 33 Maryland community colleges and universities at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union.
Participants included student veteran leaders, student veterans’ office coordinators, VA certifying staff from the financial aid office, and faculty advisors and counselors who provide assistance and resources for student veterans. The training aimed to share best practices for serving student veterans, as well as to strengthen the statewide network of individuals who support them.
“We were delighted to bring together people from all across Maryland to share strategies and resources for serving student veterans,” noted Koblinsky. “It was a great opportunity to leverage the ideas and successful practices of our higher education community in addressing the transition challenges of veterans returning to school.”
Bricco, who served as a Peer Support Facilitator with Bowie State, describes the perspective that many of his peers share: “We’re not only non-traditional students, but we’re veterans who have dedicated our lives to serving our country. Now that we’re back as civilians, others often don’t understand how we view the world.” Although veterans bring numerous strengths to the college classroom, including leadership, global experience, and focus, some may need to refresh their academic skills or may be recovering from war-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another MaVRI Peer Facilitator, Bellamie Nelson, who is an Anthropology undergraduate at UMD and an Air Force veteran, notes that “women veterans are often reluctant to share their veteran status when returning to college, sometimes because they haven’t been in direct combat and sometimes because they’re just too busy with part-time jobs, parenting, and other responsibilities.” In her work building veteran clubs for MaVRI, she made special efforts to reach out to women veterans and suggest ways they could support one another. Nelson notes, for example, that some campuses have developed financial and parenting seminars for women veterans, screened documentaries featuring women veterans, and developed women veterans support groups.
At UMD, programs that link student veterans with peer support, tutoring assistance, and opportunities to volunteer and give back to the military and veteran community make a big difference to the more than 800 student veterans on campus. The University’s Veteran Center also provides a needed respite from academic pressures. “Having a place where veterans can come together and relax, not worry about school and those who may not understand what we’re going through is very important. We can let it go and talk about anything that is on our minds,” says Bricco.
Koblinsky and MaVRI co-director Dr. Leslie report that increasing numbers of Maryland campuses have created full-time positions for student veteran coordinators and 13 have established Veterans Centers where students can study, socialize, organize community service, and support one another. Leslie notes that “these efforts, together with student veteran organizations, are helping veterans to connect with peers who understand their experiences and are increasing their retention and graduation rates.”
In addition to providing needed resources that contribute to veteran student success, the MaVRI project is building recognition for the unique perspective and leadership skills that veterans bring to the campus and larger community.
When Bricco and fellow veterans placed 1500 flags on McKeldin Mall in September as a tribute to those lost in the 9/11 tragedy, he recalls his disbelief in hearing a student say “What does ‘we will never forget mean?’”
“Students on campus who are 18 or 19 years old may not remember 9/11 or know why many of us joined the military to serve our country. We want people to realize that there are veterans on campus and that we have a commitment to give back to the community and to serve,” he says proudly.
In addition to efforts to facilitate student veteran success, the MaVRI project also surveyed more than 3,000 licensed mental health and primary care professionals in Maryland to gauge their knowledge and confidence in treating veterans’ conditions. The survey was the first statewide effort in the U.S. to assess the knowledge and training needs of health care professionals who are treating veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Findings of the pioneering study were published in Military Behavioral Health. The MaVRI team used feedback from survey participants to design trainings for state providers that addressed military culture and treatment of war-related behavioral health conditions. Total attendance at MaVRI trainings by state social workers, psychologists, counselors, marriage and family therapists, and primary care physicians over the two-year period of the project now exceeds 1,000.