“I love my job,” says Micaela Black (left), Vetsuccess coordinator. “I feel like I’m giving back and truly saying to veterans, ‘Thank you for your service. What can I do to help you?’”
Micaela Black is a licensed mental health and vocational counselor and coordinator of Vetsuccess on Campus at Rhode Island College and CCRI. Employed by the Providence VA Regional Office, her job is to ensure that every Rhode Island veteran, active service member and their dependents make use of their VA educational benefits.
“When the post-911 GI Bill® rolled out in 2009, college campuses were inundated with veterans wanting to enroll in school,” Black says, “but colleges weren’t equipped to handle the flood.”
That’s when RIC’s Military Resource Center was established by RIC faculty member and military spouse Professor Monica Darcy to meet the needs of vets. The VA realized, however, it would be helpful to also place a VA vocational counselor on college campuses to ensure that vets not only understood their VA benefits but how to choose a career and navigate college.
Thus, the Vetsuccess on Campus program was born – a partnership between the VA and college campuses across the country. Black’s office, co-located at both RIC and CCRI, is the only Vetsuccess on Campus program in New England. At RIC, she works out of the Military Resource Center in the Student Union.
A walk-in-friendly environment, the Military Resource Center is designed to be a one-stop-shop for learning the ins and outs of GI Bill® Benefits, activating benefits, applying for admission to college, navigating college and finding community among other vets while earning a degree.
And you don’t have to be a student of RIC or CCRI to engage with Vetsuccess on Campus. Black serves all Rhode Islanders.
“I’ve had people walk in and say, ‘Hey, my brother’s a veteran and he’s struggling. Can you help him?’ These are people who would never walk into a VA medical center,” says Black. “By embedding Vetsuccess within the community, people have access to VA services that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Amanda Weber is one such veteran who walked in requesting help. “Micaela was a God-send,” Weber says. “I wanted to make use of my GI Bill but I didn’t know where I wanted to go to school nor what career I wanted to go into. I was a nervous wreck, but she has this calming effect on you and this wealth of knowledge. If she can’t help you with a question, she has all these contacts and connections with people who can.” With Micaela’s help, Weber wound up enrolling at RIC.
“In a word, Micaela’s our champion,” says RIC student vet Alex Ortiz.
Black is available at RIC two days a week and at CCRI three days a week, offering both face-to-face appointments as well as walk-ins.
Working alongside Black at the Military Resource Center is Lisa Levasseur (right of photo), interim assistant director of the center. When a newly admitted student is identified as military-affiliated, Levasseur is immediately contacted by RIC’s Office of Admissions.
Like Black, Levasseur is knowledgeable in VA benefits and college benefits. And both Black and Levasseur are able to help student vets transition not only to college life but to civilian life.
“Lisa is the Military Resource Center’s greatest asset,” Ortiz says. “She was hired last year, when COVID-19 had just hit. She was working from home and didn’t know anyone on campus, yet she managed to get me enrolled in school three days before classes started. In the military, you have to be effective and proficient at what you do. Lisa encompasses that and she does it with very few resources.”
Levasseur retired from the military in 2020, after serving 29 years in the Air Force and active duty in the Rhode Island Air National Guard. Prior to retirement, she acted as educational liaison for the Rhode Island Air National Guard, where she handled VA educational benefits and programs. Because of her experience, Black recommended that Levasseur lead RIC’s Military Resource Center.
Levasseur has a hand in almost everything: she walks student vets through the admission process; she connects them to RIC campus resources like OASIS for tutoring, the Writing Center, the Counseling Center and the Disability Services Center; and she plans programming such as the 911 memorial, the Veterans Day ceremony and military-affiliated workshops.
To ensure that all military-affiliated students have, at their fingertips, a listing of veteran resources and organizations, Levasseur worked with Rhode Island Elder and a few volunteers to create a booklet titled “Operation Connect.” She also leads a monthly Zoom meeting called “Operation Connect,” involving the leaders of veteran groups across Rhode Island.
Perhaps the greatest service the Military Resource Center provides is opportunities for military-affiliated students to find genuine community and connection. Levasseur plans off-campus events where students can get together. They’ve gone to the Axe Bar in Lincoln, the WaterFire Salute to Veterans, they’ve hiked Purgatory Chasm and gotten together with other student vets on campuses across New England. She has also hired 10 veteran work-study students. Here are a few of them:
“Lisa has created this really inviting, safe place for vets at the Military Resource Center,” Weber says. “I often stop by after class to wait for my next class and I end up meeting other vets and exchanging numbers. It feels like family. It’s a place where you feel a sense of belonging.”
Levasseur understands the need to belong. She, too, is transitioning to civilian life.
“I’m transitioning from a structured military environment to a higher education environment,” she says. “I sometimes don’t know where I fit in or where I belong. I understand exactly where these vets are coming from. I’m making my way, too.”
“Student veterans don’t look like your traditional student,” she says. “They tend to be older students, commuter students. Many of them have families. They might have part-time or full-time jobs while trying to be full-time students. They sit in classrooms with 18-to-23-year-old students when their average age is 30. I don’t want them to get lost, give up or quit.”
Levasseur holds a standing monthly meeting with RIC President Frank D. Sánchez to discuss how to better serve student veterans and she is working with RIC’s Alumni Association to provide leadership opportunities for student vets.
“If vets knew about the work that Lisa and Micaela do, RIC would double their military membership,” Ortiz asserts. “They’re both amazing. We have a dream team at RIC.”