As veterans return to civilian life, many of them decide to go back to school. Now the state of Florida may join other states and make it less expensive to do so as an out-of-state student.
Now, as the nation celebrates Veterans Day, a student group here at the University of Florida is advocating for the passage of bills to do just that. And UF has created offices and resources to support students who have served.
In 2012, nearly half a million veterans and service members used the post 9/11 GI Bill, according to Student Veterans, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that advocates for student veterans.
A bill filed in Tallahassee earlier this year could give student veterans going to school in Florida in-state tuition, regardless of residency. Florida would join the more than 20 other states that have already done so.
Right now, only veterans who served at a base in Florida, or within fifty miles of the state line, are eligible for the lower-cost tuition.
Kirsten Berling was in the Air Force for three years. Berling knew Florida was where she wanted to go to school, but as a New Hampshire native, paying for college became difficult.
“I was an out-of-state [student] for an entire year,” Berling says. “I had to work a full time job while being a full time student. It was detrimental for my grades and it stressed me out along with the stress of going back to civilian life.”
Matthew Davis agrees. He’s the president of the University of Florida’s Collegiate Veterans Society; a group of student veterans from all branches, majors and ages. Davis says even though he pays in-state tuition, he’s joining the fight for fellow veterans.
“To me this one of the most important academic legislation to come through the state of Florida,” Davis said. “There’s no reason why a veteran should pay out-of-state tuition. They served all 50 states, including this one.”
The UF Dean of Students office has been working with the collegiate veterans group, especially as the student veteran population has grown.
In April, the university opened the Collegiate Veterans Success Center, a space dedicated to student veterans, tucked away in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Decorated with flags of each branch of the military and a bulletin board covered with photos from many of the veterans’ days in the service, the space creates a comfortable, cozy atmosphere.
It also houses valuable resources including career and well-being counseling, as well as a veterans service officer who helps students with benefits claims. Anthony DeSantis, who is associate dean of students, works closely with the group of student veterans.
“The challenges are different for everyone,” DeSantis said. “For some, it’s not an issue. But there are some that still are having a transitional problem. They don’t feel like they connect. The students that work here are the ones letting me know what the students want.”
DeSantis says socializing can be a concern for these students. When they come back to school, he says some veterans feel disconnected from the university and their peers.
Don Grove can attest to that. Grove served in the Navy for over 20 years. He now works part time and is a full-time student from Jacksonville. He travels over an hour to and from home each day to attend classes at the University of Florida. Putting himself and two daughters through college, Don says it’s hard to find common ground with many of his fellow classmates.
“All my time here is out of pocket. I’m paying for myself [to go to school], and my two daughters,” Grove said. “I’m trying to balance class work, with family life, with my job.”
For Davis, the center is a great starting place for veteran students to access the resources they need, but also socialize and have a place they can call their own.
“The university has definitely reevaluated the needs of the veteran,” Davis said. “I think UF’s services are only going to get better for veterans. It’s a national trend and I think our university is leading the way in it.”
Now that the legislation providing these benefits is pending in Tallahassee, these student veterans are doing what they can to rally support to ease transition for their out-of-state peers. UF’s Collegiate Veterans Society will gather on the campus Nov. 12 to address the bill and rally support for Senate bill 84 and House Bill 35.