Carolina is home to nearly 3,200 veterans and military-affiliated students, faculty and staff who bring their unique life experiences to strengthen our campus community.
But those experiences also come with unique challenges. The Carolina Veterans Resource Center is working to meet those needs and serve the veterans on campus.
The center, which opened in 2017, is designed to assist UNC-Chapel Hill’s veterans, service members and military families by serving as a central location for resources focused on their needs, from GI Bill assistance to applying for specialized scholarships. The center also provides study space, a lounge and meeting spaces where veterans can connect and build community.
“This is a group of folks who, for a number of reasons, are very hesitant to ask for help,” said Rob Palermo, the director of the center. “Creating an environment where they feel OK doing that and where they can do it around people who they trust is a big part of what we try to do.”
Continue reading to learn more about Palermo’s goals at the Carolina Veterans Resource Center and how the space is serving our Tar Heel veterans.
What do student-veterans bring to our campus?
One huge thing that they bring is leadership. If you’ve served in the military for any length of time and have more than two stripes on your shoulders, you supervised other people, you’ve led teams, and that’s a really valuable thing to bring to campus. They spent the vast majority of their time supervising 18- to 22-year-olds, which is exactly who everybody else on campus is. We can put them in spaces like, say, BeAM, which is a great partner with us. I have a guy who works for me as a work-study student. He was one of the few people in the Navy who was authorized to do welding and cutting on nuclear submarines. Who better to learn metalworking from than someone like that, right? In the classroom and in extracurricular activities, their leadership is invaluable.
It’s a group of people that is extremely self-sufficient, that is extremely adaptive. Again, if you’ve been in the military for any length of time, you’ve been asked to do something completely unreasonable without the resources to do it and told to figure it out. That’s a valuable skill no matter where you are.
I think people have this concept of “veterans” that they’re all the same, and that’s not true. The diversity that they bring to campus and the experience they bring is invaluable.
What is the goal of the Carolina Veterans Resource Center?
First of all, the center itself is a space where people can do a lot of things in. It’s a place where people can gather and associate. It’s also a study space. It’s good for a lot of things like that.
We’re trying to create a situation where there’s academic success for student-veterans while they’re here at UNC and set them up to do the things they want to do when they leave successfully, which is really what we’re trying to do for every student, but our veterans face a unique set of challenges, especially with the transition out of the military and back into both civilian life and into an elite university. A lot of what we do is centered around wellness, both physical and mental and community building.
What are some of the unique challenges student-veterans face?
At the very least, they’re going to be four years older than everybody else coming in as an undergrad. Usually, it’s a lot more than that. On average, our veterans, when they come to us as undergrads, tend to be in their late 20s and early 30s. What tends to happen is they get to the point where they’ve got about six to eight years [in the military], then that’s the point where you have to decide, ‘OK. Am I going to get out and go do something else, or I’m going to stay for 20 years and retire?’ So, we tend to get them at that point in their careers and lives. They probably haven’t been in school for a long time, which in and of itself creates some unique challenges.
There’s a huge cultural shift coming out of the military and back into civilian life. That can be very difficult to do because of their age. They’re far more likely to have responsibilities like partners, children and older relatives. They need to take care of things like that. They almost never live on campus, so they can feel disconnected from campus generally and not part of the community for those reasons.
It’s not an easy task to come in as a traditional student, as well prepared as you can possibly be and still do well in Carolina. And when you add all those outside challenges, it creates a uniquely difficult environment.
What kind of programming do you provide for student-veterans?
We try to make sure that our programming is driven by student feedback and student needs that they express to us as challenges.
We do a lot of regular community-building things like Taco Tuesday every other Tuesday. It will usually be accompanied with something like an academic skills workshop or a test-taking skills workshop or some type of career service. So, we try to add something like that to it. They’re helpful skills that people are going to get that they might not want to reach out for in a traditional way, but if you put it in an environment where they’re around peers, around people they feel comfortable with, they’re going to get more of it.
We try to do a lot of things that just make people more aware of this population and what it has to offer on campus. That’s why we do things like the Red, White and Carolina Blue graduation ceremony twice a year. We support the Carolina Student Veterans of America, the student-led group. We want to show this is a group with contributions to make in the community.
I think really the support is probably the biggest thing we do but raising awareness and helping veterans be more involved with the rest of the campus community is also a big part of what we do.
What do you want students to gain by being at the center?
We want them to know that we’re able to connect them with people who are going to help them directly. We don’t tell them to go to admissions. We tell them to go to a specific person in admissions. We don’t tell them to go to advising. We tell them, ‘Go see Cliff Jones because he’s the guy that’s going to help you out.’
We want to be able to get them the specific help they need when they ask for it and to avoid them being sort of bounced around from department to department. We want them to feel supported and to know that if they come to us with a problem, we are going to give them a solution. We want to be action-oriented in that way.
Why are you passionate about working with Carolina’s student-veterans?
Because I am one of them.
I had the same experience of coming out of the military and going back to school as a much older person than my peers and trying to negotiate the GI Bill and all those sorts of things. And as an undergrad, in my experience, there was very little support there for that, and it was a very difficult thing to figure out how to do. I don’t want people to have that experience here.
We’re one of the top universities in the country, and our veteran services should match that. We should be very good at those things.