Annalisa Purser, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications
Paul Morgan is the new director of the Veterans Support Center on campus. We sat down with him to learn about what the support center does for its veterans, who qualifies for these benefits and more. Although he’s only been director for a few months, Morgan is passionate about caring for the veterans at the U and wants to build awareness about the services the center provides and its extensive efforts to help each veteran that comes into its doors.
Who qualifies as a veteran at the U?
Most of the students we serve are traditional veterans that have completed their military obligation and are now here as students, but we also serve anyone who is currently serving in the military. At the University of Utah, a veteran is someone who has served in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, whether in the reserves, on active duty or in the National Guard, and regardless of whether or not they went to combat. As long as the individual has not been dishonorably discharged, we support him or her. We also give support to their dependents since veterans who qualify for the GI Bill can transfer the benefits to a dependent.
How many veterans are there at the U, and how many come to the Veterans Support Center?
We have veterans coming and going out of our center constantly throughout the week. There are 1,100 documented veterans at the U right now. However, I believe there are 20 to 30 percent more who either don’t know they qualify as a veteran or don’t self-identify as one. We have a strong community at the Veterans Support Center, and we received 7,500 visits to the center in the previous academic year (2015 to 2016). Some veterans visit us three or four times a day. I’m happy with how well used our services are, but I’d love for more veterans to come.
What services does the Veterans Support Center provide to veterans at the U?
It is our sole mission to help veterans get through school successfully, and everything we do at the center revolves around this mission. We are a one-stop shop for vets. We offer free tutoring and use our conference room as a study hall where vets can help other vets with difficult coursework. We have expert personnel available at any time, including an on-call lawyer who can offer free legal counseling or representation at a 75-percent discount; a financial advisor; VA vocational rehabilitation and counseling representatives; school certifying officers; and a career coach. We also provide free printing, a free computer lab, free coffee and free sportswear, thanks to a generous grant from the Wagner Foundation.
Can you share a story about how you were able to use your resources to go the extra mile to help a veteran?
There is no effort I or my staff won’t make to help our veterans. We will go to the ends of the earth for our fellow brothers and sisters in arms.
Recently, a student came to us who served in the National Guard. For two years, she had been receiving partial GI Bill benefits because she was activated on federal orders. Unfortunately, the Veterans Administration contacted her and told her they made a mistake, explaining she not only didn’t qualify for the GI Bill, but that she owed them money back. As a mother of three pursuing higher education, this student was counting on the money she received from the GI Bill and was rightfully upset. Wanting to help in any way possible, we helped her apply for a waiver of debt, since it wasn’t her fault. We also reached out to multiple organizations at the U and were able to find grants for her to continue her schooling. She’s determined and resourceful, so she has done a lot to help herself by applying for multiple other grants and scholarships to help in future semesters. We can’t solve every problem, but we do everything we can to try.
What drew you to your position as director of the Veterans Support Center?
I received my undergraduate degree from the U, so deciding to come back was an easy choice. I first came here when I was in the Marines in 1983. My new wife, who grew up in a tiny town in Georgia, and I love it. After my career serving my country in the military, I knew I wanted to continue helping veterans in any way possible. When I was offered this job as director, I didn’t even have to think about it. I accepted it immediately and moved here from the east coast within a week. I’ve been director for a few months, and my family is still in Virginia, but they’ll be coming out here shortly.
Every day I am inspired by the student veterans I work with and I’m proud to be part of the U. I feel so honored to be here, and it’s definitely more of a calling than a job. The center’s executive secretary, Jennifer Brown, who was an Army helicopter mechanic, feels the same way. They’re going to have to take me out kicking and screaming if they ever want me to leave!
What makes the Veterans Support Center unique?
While you’re serving in the military, you’re a part of an intimate, close-knit group. It can be jarring to leave that camaraderie after serving in such high-stress situations, and many veterans feel a sense of loss when they exit the military. They’re giving up that brotherhood and sisterhood that kept them alive in the line of duty. The center provides a sense of that bond again, as it’s a place where veterans can talk about anything they want with like-minded people who have experienced similar situations. At the center, I see our brilliant and resilient student veterans easily shift from discussing the horrors of the battlefield to solving calculus or physics problems. Offering veterans an environment in which they can keep a military connection and share similar experiences is an invaluable opportunity and makes the transition to the classrooms and lecture halls a bit easier, allowing them to be like any other student.