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Those feeling patriotic this weekend need look no farther than the RIC campus to find reasons to salute. Enrolled in Rhode Island College classes are approximately 250 student veterans, many of whom have found valuable support and connections on campus through multiple avenues.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a “VetSuccess on Campus” program, with a representative available on campus every Monday and Wednesday. Also offering services through the workweek is the college’s Veterans Resource Center, staffed by other student veterans. As is the case with all colleges that support veterans, RIC has a VA certifying official – Cindy Salzillo – on staff to assist with the benefits process. VetSuccess on Campus Coordinator Micaela Black Estrella explained that RIC’s three, veteran-centered entities have a “no-wrong-door” policy and work together to put student veterans on the path to higher education.

“What benefits am I entitled to?” This is typically the first question Estrella hears, and her answers vary widely based on the serviceperson’s prior experience. Those who have served on active duty in the military may receive benefits from either the post 9-11 G.I. Bill or the earlier Montgomery G.I. Bill. Both offer up to 36 months of tuition, but, Estrella points out, those 36 months are based on a nine-month academic year; in other words, the bills translate to four years of tuition benefits.

Through one of two national programs, reservists may qualify for stipends that help with college costs but typically do not cover full tuition. However, a separate Rhode Island law provides tuition and fee waivers, as well as a small stipend, for those who have served in the Rhode Island National Guard and have completed basic training.

Depending on one’s military service, a student may qualify for combined benefits among two or more programs. Additional benefits are also available for veterans with disabilities. The team of Veterans Services staffers at RIC not only help students identify their available benefits but also assist them in applying.

That same team may help students apply for admission at RIC, including filling out the common application and, if necessary, financial aid forms. All veterans applying to the college are required to submit their military transcripts so they may be reviewed for applicable credits. When appropriate, these students may also take College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests to determine if their military experience can translate to additional college credits.

“Just getting them set up is not the end of the story,” said Estrella. The veterans team – particularly staffers at the Veterans Resource Center – go out of their way to orient new students to the campus and connect them with an appropriate advisor. They also answer lots of questions. “Sometimes, they feel embarrassed to ask ‘How do I get to campus?’ or ‘How do I get my books?’” Estrella said. She reassuringly explains that these questions are natural for someone who has never been to college before.

Throughout their college careers, student veterans may continue to use the team’s services, from referrals to tutoring and vocational assistance. Through special social events, they may connect to a community of other student veterans who have shared life experiences and similar adjustments to campus life.

That adjustment is not always easy, according to Estrella. “It’s a different jump for some of the student vets, because it’s very unfamiliar territory,” she said. “The military is very structured, while college is the opposite.”

Veterans’ benefits extend beyond tuition assistance to health care. Because the adjustment to civilian life has unique challenges, the support team at RIC often makes referrals to readjustment services and counseling. While these referrals may direct students to off-campus services, the Warwick Vet Center sends a representative to RIC campus once a week to ensure that counseling is readily available and accessible.

At Rhode Island College, veterans have a true advocate at the helm – President Nancy Carriuolo. With several family members serving in the military, RIC’s president learned at a young age to value veterans’ contributions and experience. “I grew up listening to my small family talk about their pride in service to our country as well as about the skills they gained as a member of the armed forces,” she said. “Because of their influence, I volunteered in a Veteran’s Administration hospital when I was an undergraduate.  I have long valued veterans, and I am committed to supporting them now as they seek to transition to a college environment.” 

Recently, the governing body for all three public higher education institutions in Rhode Island, the Council on Postsecondary Education, approved policy changes that make higher education more accessible for veterans. These include counting military training and experience for credit toward degrees and certificates, offering priority registration for combat veterans and granting in-state tuition status for active-duty service members, veterans and their families.

Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Jim Purcell emphasized the importance of these changes, stating “The Council’s vote brings Rhode Island into alignment with national policies that honor veterans for their service to our nation. We hope that these changes will enable veterans and their families to succeed in their chosen fields and contribute their experience to our growing economy.”

To find out more about resources for veterans, visit www.ric.edu/studentveterans>. You can also email the Veteran Resource Center at vrc@ric.edu>, Micaela Black Estrella at micaela.black@va.gov or RIC’s VA Certifying Official Cindy Salzillo at csalzillo@ric.edu.