Army veteran Dani Molina served in the Persian Gulf before becoming supervisor of the VETS program at UCSC. Courtesy.
Army veteran Dani Molina served in the Persian Gulf before becoming supervisor of the VETS program at UCSC. Courtesy.
Peer mentors undergo a 10-day training to learn about campus resources. Courtesy.
Peer mentors undergo a 10-day training to learn about campus resources. Courtesy.
Molina mans the office at the ARC, awaiting UCSC students in search of mentoring or advice. Photo by Kathryn Power.
Molina mans the office at the ARC, awaiting UCSC students in search of mentoring or advice. Photo by Kathryn Power.

Erica Ronquillo spends her time attending sociology classes, studying for exams and leading a student organization, just like many UC Santa Cruz undergraduates. Her life is normal compared to most, except for one thing: at any moment, Ronquillo could be called into active duty in Iraq. Ronquillo, a Marine Corps reservist, is one of about 100 student veterans who attend UCSC.

UCSC is just one place where veterans, many of whom never expected to attend college, are taking advantage of the benefits of the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill to pursue higher education.

Veteran Education and Team Support (VETS), a fairly new program started by student veterans at UCSC, is receiving national attention for its unique way of providing support to students during the difficult transition from military service to a university.

“VETS is a support system,” said Luis Padilla, a Marine Corps veteran who served for six years in Kuwait, Iraq and on reserve. “They really do go above and beyond to help you.”

From Tragedy to Teamwork

Although Services for Transfer and Re-Entry Students (STARS) had always served veteran students, they didn’t have a specialized program for them until 2008. The original funding for VETS came from the mother of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who left his contract with the Arizona Cardinals to volunteer in the Iraq War.

After he was killed by friendly fire, Tillman’s mother Mary became an advocate for military accountability. On a book-signing stop at Capitola Book Café, she called STARS to see if they knew of any organizations in Santa Cruz where she could donate her proceeds to benefit veterans.

STARS director Corinne Miller gave Tillman the names of several organizations, but at the same time considered starting a veteran group under STARS.

“We did a focus group and asked veterans, ‘What kind of services would you like?’” Miller said. “They identified that a peer mentor program would be best.”

Capitola Book Café decided to donate the proceeds of the signing to STARS, and this became the seed money for VETS.

In 2008 the VETS program beat out over 200 similar programs nationwide, including veterans’ programs at UCLA and UC Berkeley, to win a $100,000 Success for Veterans Grant from the ACE/Wal-Mart Foundation.

“UCSC is working very hard and the amount they have accomplished is incredible,” said Christopher Lopez, an outreach representative of the Santa Cruz County Veterans’ Center in Capitola.

With the grant, VETS hopes to expand outreach to community colleges, increase retention efforts, hold more social events and build ties with non-veteran students and the community. After the grant ends in June 2011, the VETS program will have to find another source of funding.

Student to Student, Soldier to Soldier

Today, the VETS program is run under STARS and is located in the Academic Resources Center (ARC). The program offers peer mentoring, sends out a biweekly newsletter, and holds social events and even meetings with local political representatives where veterans can voice their concerns.

“Student veterans aren’t used to the same things other students are used to,” said Daniel Wilson, VETS coordinator and Coast Guard veteran. “They enter into a world where there’s a very ‘group’ mentality. You learn not to ask questions, or at least not dumb questions. They’ve adapted and then they come here to a university where quite honestly, individual work is more highly valued.”

For many veterans, peer mentoring is successful because it is similar to the environment of the military, where teamwork is encouraged. Entering a university can be a difficult transition for veterans because it requires a higher level of individual interaction.

Asking questions is also vital in a university, whether in the housing office or a discussion section — whereas in the military, questioning leadership is often discouraged, leaving one more likely to turn to a comrade rather than a higher-up.

“They’re coming from a very structured environment to a fairly unstructured environment,” STARS director Miller said.

Many students who come to a UC straight out of high school are trained in ways to navigate bureaucracy, while those who entered the military might not get that opportunity.

“The groups that get washed out are minority groups, groups that are low-income, that don’t have a lot of socioeconomic opportunities, and a lot of times that’s the group that veterans are in,” Wilson said. “They went into the military in the first place because it’s a ladder for socially and economically disadvantaged people to get somewhere, whether it’s a career out of the military or an education.”

VETS peer mentors undergo training in which professionals from many campus departments — including Financial Aid, the Disability Resource Center, the Career Center, and Counseling and Psychological Services — inform mentors of the resources available on campus. The mentors can then share these resources with their peers, as well as help them take advantage of their military benefits.

Currently the VETS program serves approximately 20 to 30 student veterans on campus. This peer mentor program, and many veterans’ presence at UCSC in the first place, would not be possible without the GI Bill.

The New GI Bill

Although educational benefits have been an incentive for military service since the 1940s, the post-Sept. 11 or “new” GI Bill greatly expanded the opportunities for veterans to pursue higher education.

The GI Bill provides money to people who have been in the armed services and wish to pursue an education afterward. The bill also covers those on reserve and, in some cases, dependents of military personnel.

Lopez of the Veterans’ Center calls it “a beautiful thing,” and believes that “it’s really helping a lot of people change their lives.”

The new GI Bill first came into effect this academic year. The old GI Bill, which was passed in 1984, reimbursed veterans’ tuition with about $900 a month.

“If you live in California, especially in the Silicon Valley or in the Bay Area, you know that $900 a month won’t even cover rent — much less your tuition or the cost of your books or food,” Wilson said.

The new bill provides a student veteran’s full tuition, up to the most expensive public university in the state; a housing stipend based on actual housing prices; and a book stipend of $1,000 per year. The vast improvement in the new bill was partially due to the formation of Student Veterans of America, a national group that lobbied Congress for increased support of student veterans.

“It really covers your whole-life cost of going to school,” Wilson said of the new bill.

Marine Corps veteran Padilla had always planned on joining the Marines, but never really planned on going to college.

“I was 17 when I enlisted,” Padilla said. “I knew that was going to be it.”

He became interested in UCSC while enrolled in community college, but it was the GI Bill that made it possible for him to attend. Although Padilla was deployed to Iraq for two years after his first quarter at UCSC in 2007, he returned and plans to graduate this spring with a degree in history. He hopes to attend graduate school for a degree in international relations.

Dani Molina graduated from UCSC in December 2009 with a degree in Latin American and Latino studies, and now serves as supervisor of the VETS program. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, Molina had few opportunities.

“I always had this ambition that college was the way out of these barrios that I grew up in in south central Los Angeles,” he said. “I’m almost certain that if I wouldn’t have enlisted in the military and taken advantage of the educational benefits, I wouldn’t be here at UC Santa Cruz. I wouldn’t be the VETS supervisor. I wouldn’t have provided a lot of the support that I have so far.”

While at UCSC, Molina studied abroad in Chile and interned for Congressman Sam Farr. He also developed a passion for helping underprivileged youth, and hopes to attend graduate school for academic advising or another field promoting higher education. Unlike many other California students, Molina was able to graduate debt-free because of the GI Bill.

Life as a Veteran at UCSC

Veterans contribute some unique attributes to the campus community.

“They bring a sense of purpose and focus,” STARS director Miller said. “They’re highly motivated people and very skilled.”

For many student veterans the idea of coming to UCSC was daunting, and not because of its academic rigor.

“I’d seen articles about [anti-military protests] … when I first came here, and I thought that was the sentiment of the entire student body,” Padilla said. “I thought, ‘If I show any sign that I’m a veteran or have been overseas, I’m going to get that kind of reaction.’”

In 2006, the campus group Students Against War protested military recruiters’ presence at a campus job fair, causing the recruiters to vacate at the request of the students. Nevertheless, Padilla and other veterans say that they received more support here than they expected.

“Students can separate their political beliefs with the actuality of a person,” Padilla said.

“I’ve heard people talk about how there’s this history of anti-military sentiment, and I think it’s still around,” Molina said. “But there definitely aren’t anti-veteran feelings here. I’m not shy about telling people that I’m a veteran. … There’s a real, authentic, caring relationship here with students.”

However, not all student veterans have had completely positive experiences. Marine Corps reservist Ronquillo said she often overhears conversations in which other students speak negatively about the military, and that makes her hesitant to talk about her experiences.

“There’s a misconception that because you’re in the military you have a certain idea about the conflicts [in Iraq and Afghanistan], which is absolutely not true,” Ronquillo said.

Although most students are able to separate their political beliefs from their ideas about veterans, there is always more work to be done. One goal of VETS is to increase communication between all members of the university community, and by doing so increase understanding between people.

“I hope and wish that that caring relationship grows here, especially at UCSC, where anti-war and pro-war politics are not involved with the veterans and their needs,” Molina said. “We can continue to grow the relationship between the veteran and non-veteran community. … That’s what our veteran program is going to do here.”