BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Salem State University is building a new home for a new kind of student.
These students did not go directly from high school to college, nor are they returning to school after spending time in the workforce.
Many of them have spent the past few years in the Middle East fighting a war against terrorism.
These new students are U.S. military veterans.
“Most of our veterans have served either in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Sam Ohannesian, director of enrollment services and veterans affairs at Salem State.
Since the passage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill in 2008, which pays for tuition, fees, books and even housing, Salem State has seen a significant increase in the number of veterans, a figure now pegged at 220.
The university has its own chapter of the Student Veterans of America. SSU hosted a ceremony last week at which veterans were awarded decorative stoles to wear at graduation. The college has been designated a “military-friendly school” by the website GIJobs.com.
Next fall, Salem State will roll out the camouflage carpet even more when it opens its first Veterans Resource Center, thanks to a competitive $10,000 grant from the national SVA and The Home Depot Foundation.
The new office at Ellison Campus Center, currently being renovated, will have desks for a veterans benefit coordinator and for Veterans Administration work-study students. It will include a small lounge with a couch, refrigerator and wide-screen TV. It may have military posters and a world map with pins marking where Salem State veterans have served.
For veterans, the resource center will be a home within the sprawling campus, a place to meet other veterans.
“It’s nice to have a place where people of (the same) culture can come together to kind of talk and vent,” said Patrick Cornell, 27, president of the Student Veterans Organization and a former Army staff sergeant who has done three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The veterans are not like other students, officials said. Most are older and have gone through life experiences other students have not seen, and may not be able to imagine. They are coming from military worlds of uniforms, discipline and order, and entering a college world of independence and more personal freedom.
As a result, the veterans likely have more in common with each other than with the student sitting in front of them in a business class.
“The relationships you have in the military are on such a different level ...” said Max Theriault, 25, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Persian Gulf. “While I didn’t serve with (other Salem State veterans), there are still so many threads that are similar.”
As simple as the concept sounds, a Veterans Resource Center could help with what may be a difficult transition from military to civilian life. It could mean the difference between staying in school or dropping out, with getting help — whether course advice, housing suggestions or mental health counseling — or being left alone to cope.
“This is somewhere you can go to and know you belong,” said Theriault, who is vice president of the student organization. “Hopefully, that will help with retention for any veteran ...”
The veterans center is founded on a simple concept.
“Veterans listen to other veterans,” Ohannesian said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.