“From Boots to Books” – USF Sarasota-Manatee makes education a breeze for Veterans

After 20 years in the United States Navy and seven tours that led him to Japan, California, and Virginia, Patrick Walker knew that he was ready to go back to school so that he could do what he felt he was always meant to do:  teach.

He was in luck – for qualifying veterans, the post-9/11 GI Bill pays for the full in-state cost of any public college.  But returning veterans often experience difficulties making the transition from military to civilian life, and Walker was no exception.  Obstacles seemed to appear from every angle, and he had a difficult time navigating the systems put in place by the VA to help veterans return to school.

“I know how to work hard, and I know how to get things done, but all of the paperwork was something I was not used to,” Walker said.  “If you don’t know how to move paperwork, then you don’t get money for tuition or books.  I didn’t know of any military support group that tells you what to do and I didn’t know the first thing about getting a college degree.”

Luckily, Walker found the support and encouragement he needed at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, and was soon on his way to pursuing a degree Interdisciplinary Sciences with a minor in Secondary Education.  The University of South Florida is one of eight colleges offering personalized assistance to every veteran on campus.

“USF Sarasota-Manatee has a lot to offer veterans, who can find great opportunities to learn and grow,” he said.  “Veterans tend to look at things from a different perspective, but the whole university and community has been great.  They work us hard, but I’m used to that.  The university has felt like home to me.”

Walker joined the Student Veteran Organization on campus, which has about 65 members, and had the opportunity to reach out to others who were making the same transitions.  He also worked with the VA representative on campus, Chris Wenzel, who has 21 years of military experience and most recently held the position of Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force.

Wenzel is knowledgeable about the numerous community and university resources available to veterans and is serving as the secretary to the Veteran Committee and the president of the Student Veteran Organization at USFSM.  Other services, including a website outlining the opportunities available to veterans and staff and faculty who are dedicated to helping veterans succeed have helped student veterans make a seamless transition through application to graduation to employment.

“Many veterans tell me that they have a hard time asking for help because they don’t want to be a burden,” said Christa Fowler, reference and instruction librarian at USFSM.  “I’m hoping that offering these services will entice them to ask for help and get the services they deserve.”

Fowler is participating in two national conventions this summer to promote opportunities for veterans on campus.  Her poster presentations, entitled “From Boots to Books,” will be presented at the Florida Library Association Annual Conference on May 7-8 and at the American Library Association Annual Convention in New Orleans June 23-28.  She also runs the Veterans Services website for the University of South Florida and was instrumental in organizing the first annual Veterans Day Ceremony held at USFSM in 2010.

Walker currently volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast and looks forward to working with young minds when he graduates from USFSM in the spring of 2012.

“I’m not the same age and I haven’t had the same life experiences as a lot of traditional students, but I’ve never felt like I didn’t fit in here,” he said.  “I have the utmost respect for how the university is doing so much to help make education possible for veterans.”