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VCU’s Green Zone program has become a national model for supporting military students on campus

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Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

On a Wednesday afternoon in the University Student Commons at Virginia Commonwealth University, staff and faculty members pepper a panel of students with questions.

“What would you guys like to see from your academic advisors, as far as being sensitive to the needs of our student veterans?”

“What can we say in our communications to veterans? I can’t get them in my office in the first place.”

“Can student veterans get minors, or double majors?”

“I’ve had some students approach me about being in large classrooms that have made them uncomfortable in certain situations. Have you guys ever found yourself in a situation like that?”

“Can you tell us a little bit more about what the GI Bill actually covers, and what the timeframe is?”

By sharing their experiences as part of the Green Zone program, the military and veteran students on the panel are helping faculty and staff learn about the strengths, opportunities and challenges fellow veterans bring to campus.

“A veteran could be sitting next to you, and you might not even know,” said Lucian Friel, a student taking part in the panel who served four years in the Marine Corps. He was joined by Robert Skimin, who served four years in the Army; Colin Bruguiere, who served as an infantry squad leader in the Marine Corps; and Jaimie Townsend, who is on active duty with the Air Force.

The Green Zone aims to help military students navigate the complexities of campus by building a network of allies among VCU’s faculty and staff who understand the basics of service. It is named for the secure international zone in Baghdad, Iraq, a place familiar to many post-9/11 service members.

About 10 percent of Virginians have served in the armed forces. The state has the largest percentage of both women veterans and veterans under age 28 in the country, according to the Virginia Department of Veterans and Defense Affairs.

Nationally, only 1 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces.

“We want to put our veterans in front of more people who may have not been around them,” said Stephen Ross, director of Military Student Services. “That’s a different twist. Now, they see for themselves. They see a young, vibrant student."

 

‘It made them feel like people cared’

Days before the training session, Ross does a quick online search in his office.

“If you go online and you Google ‘Green Zone education,’ all sorts of schools will pop up. It’s amazing,” he said. “VCU started this.”

Stephen Ross, director of military student services.
Stephen Ross, director of military student services.

The Green Zone was modeled on the Safe Zone program for LGBTQ students, said Ann M. Nichols-Casebolt, faculty emeritus. She worked with a student veteran on developing the Green Zone while serving as interim dean of the School of Social Work in 2010.

“There had been a lot of interest in different pockets on campus,” she said. After a workshop at VCU, “There was such a positive response [that] it was clear that the campus was poised to want to do something to help the growing number of student veterans on campus.”

The program got off the ground quickly and at modest cost.

“It was heartening to see the amount of people who wanted to reach out to our student vets. The Green Zone really filled a need that was already there and waiting to be filled,” Nichols-Casebolt said. “It made them feel like people cared about them as a student veteran, and that mattered a lot to them.”

The Green Zone went national when Nichols-Casebolt published an article about the program in About Campus, a publication of the American College Personnel Association. Now retired, she still receives inquiries about the program from that article.

“We had a huge response, and it has not stopped,” she said. Today more than 100 universities and organizations across the U.S. have a Green Zone program.

 

Updating the Green Zone for today’s veteran

Upon starting at VCU in December 2014, Ross was confronted with two facts: VCU had shared the Green Zone with dozens of other colleges and universities, and VCU’s own program needed a refresh. The issues and opportunities faced by veteran students in 2010 had changed.

“Everybody took it, made it their own and made it better. So we needed to do that,” he said. “I wanted a presentation that was more exciting, more fun and informative about the issues that affect our veterans now — not five years ago. A lot of things have changed.”

My vision for what I wanted Green Zone to do was to break stereotypes.

James McCue II, then a graduate student and Army veteran, took charge of updating the program. The new presentation incorporates more multimedia, including video interviews with VCU military students, to be more understandable and relatable.

“My vision for what I wanted Green Zone to do was to break stereotypes,” McCue said. Society and academia “seem to stereotype all vets as one person, which is totally untrue. There are five branches and 300 jobs types out there. There’s every ethnicity and both genders coming from the military.”

Trained as a tank mechanic, McCue served in the Army from 2004 to 2008, including an overseas deployment from 2005 to 2006. He transitioned to the National Guard in 2008 and completed his undergraduate studies in 2013, often visiting the MSS offices in Harris Hall to study. He left the guard in the spring of 2014, and returned to VCU to start the School of Business’ M.B.A. program that fall.

“Being able to try to challenge the traditional university format to help cater to these different needs is a huge factor,” said McCue, now a staff member in the School of Business.

While many first think about post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury as issues facing veterans, most challenges are more mundane. They include keeping up with paperwork for G.I. Bill benefits, maintaining appointments at V.A. medical facilities, relating to younger students with more limited life experience, finding time for group work and juggling parenting, work and school.

Lucien Friel, a student and Marine Corps veteran, presents during the Green Zone training.
Lucien Friel, a student and Marine Corps veteran, presents during the Green Zone training.

In addition to unique challenges, military students also bring certain strengths to campus. They are independent and driven to achieve, Ross said, and often take on leadership roles in the classroom.

“When I talked to faculty, they all had an image in their head that was not today’s veteran. I wanted to change that image,” Ross said. “More than anything else, I wanted them to understand the true veteran that was out there. The potential that they had, the abilities that they had, the background that they had, what they had to offer.”

Numerous VCU departments have taken the refreshed training, including two open sessions held this fall. The student panel is an important component.

Ross is proud of the finished product and has shared it with more than 50 schools. He insists on a phone call with interested schools to emphasize “the importance of having the students involved, and the importance of having three to four presenters” including a student. From that point, “it’s up to them to kind of create their own.”

Ross served four years in the Air Force, manning missile silos, and 27 years at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.

“With Stephen, you’ve got an individual who brings that veteran background and can relate to students. He wasn’t afraid to make changes to the program,” Nichols-Casebolt said.

In addition to a small but dedicated staff, MSS is bolstered by eight to 12 work-study students, who help with everything from Green Zone presentations to processing paperwork and answering questions about the benefits process. The Student Veteran Association is another close partner of the office, teaming up for events and activities.

Conference to share Green Zone across Virginia 

Veterans in Virginia

-Seventh-largest veteran population
-Fastest-growing veteran population
-Largest percentage of women veterans
-Largest percentage of veterans under age 28

Sources: Department of Veterans Affairs, Virginia Department of Veterans and Defense Affairs

Next week, dozens of educators and administrators from across Virginia will gather at the James Branch Cabell Library to learn about the Green Zone. The conference is being held in partnership with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Department of Veterans Services.

“We’re here in Virginia, let’s offer this to other Virginia schools. I don’t want to take something that’s been very effective and leave it dormant. I want to keep improving it,” Ross said.

A focus on two evolving areas, women veterans and students who are military dependents, is planned. More than 45 people representing a dozen colleges and universities are signed up. The conference will help refine and refresh VCU’s Green Zone, as well.

“This will be a good discussion point for us to knock around ideas and new things. I don’t pretend to have the market cornered on the answers for what we can do to help our students,” Ross said.

More than 1,000 VCU students claim G.I. Bill benefits, a mix of veterans and dependents. In recent semesters, the trend is more veterans and fewer dependents.

“I think a lot more veterans are staying in Virginia when they finish their service,” Ross said. “VCU is a logical choice because we offer a diverse number of academic programs, and strong and unique academic programs.”

Ultimately, Ross hopes the Green Zone will help military and veteran students find allies across campus.

“By educating faculty and staff on the challenges they face, we have another 200 people out there that are willing to go the extra step to help a veteran, because they understand,” Ross said. “I think we all tend to empathize with people when we understand them better.”

Student veteran and active duty panelists answer questions during the student panel portion of the Green Zone training.
Student veteran and active duty panelists answer questions during the student panel portion of the Green Zone training.

 

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