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USD ‘has come a long way serving veterans’

Victory Media, a national organization that looks to bridge the transition to a civilian lifestyle for veterans, named the University of South Dakota a military-friendly school for the third consecutive year. The recognition has pushed the university to further improve its veteran benefits, said Justin Smith, coordinator for the Student Veterans Resource Center.

“We’re always improving,” he said. “One thing I would like to look into would be providing a learning community, possibly through some sort of veteran’s housing. That would be phenomenal.”

Smith said the university should continue to staff the Veteran’s Center, located in room 117D inside the Temporary Student Center near north complex.

“Having a face to represent activities and support for the veteran’s center makes a huge impact,” he said.

Smith said USD has come a long way in better serving its student veterans, notably within the past four years.

“There was an idea between the Office of Diversity and the Center for Learning over how to better serve our student veterans,” Smith said. “This was before a lot of these military-friendly surveys started to circulate. One thing we were sure about was having a place where student veterans could call their own to study, meet new friends, connect with each other.”

Brendan Whalen, president of the USD Veteran’s Club, said the organization underwent several changes before settling at its current location and operating for student veterans.

“The center was allocated by the Center for Learning to kind of allow student veterans to network with other veterans and have a place where they can study or just hang out,” Whalen said. “We offer English and math tutoring through the center, references for therapy or talk sessions for students and we host several activities throughout the year to keep students involved.”

The center’s primary purpose, however, is to provide social support and promote academic success for USD’s student veterans, Smith said.

“Specifically, we provide faculty and staff training and we lead them in a state-wide training route for all of the Board of Regents colleges,” he said. “It can be overwhelming coming back from the military and having to start all over, so we try to buffer the transition from military life to a normal lifestyle.”

Smith said by providing better opportunities in education and careers for student veterans, they are in turn providing better opportunity for the rest of the community as a whole.

In order for a university to be considered “military-friendly” by Victory Media, the university must embrace student veterans and offering assistance in transitioning into civilian life by means of education and career services, among others. USD made the 2014 list by providing student veterans with assistance through the Veteran’s Club, financial aid through the Fides Grant, in-state tuition waivers, streamlined registration and the Student Veterans Resource Center, according to Sean Collins, vice president at Victory Media.

Jason Dean, veterans coordinator and associate registrar, said the best way to remain military-friendly is to stay current with the needs of the veterans.

“What a veteran is looking for can change over time,” Dean said, “It’s up to the university to stay current with those needs. A lot of what student veterans are looking for are clear explanations about the benefits available to them and social support.”

Dean has been employed with USD since 2011 after serving two years in active duty army, five years with the South Dakota National Guard and one year in Iraq.

Dean said many veterans utilize online resources such as “G.I. Jobs” and “Best for Vets” to point them in the right direction and help them decide what they’re looking for in a college campus.

“For USD’s size and location, we do a pretty good job and have a lot going for us,” he said.