FIU helps veterans make the grades

In the Tower – FIU’s oldest and most iconic building – groups of student veterans sit together studying, laughing and embracing their common bond of service.

The FIU Veteran and Military Affairs Center at MMC was renovated more than a year ago and has become an integral part of the university environment for FIU veterans. Located in the former air traffic control tower that predates the university, the center boasts three fully loaded iMacs with free access to printers, a 70-inch HD TV, a kitchen and conference rooms that can be used for hardcore finals studying.

barbecue at vet center

FIU Director of Veteran and Military Affairs Mike Pischner, left, and student-veteran Garfield Jarret on grill duty at a veteran center barbecue

FIU is home to Florida’s third largest student veteran population, and the center gives them a place to unwind and hit the books in a relaxed atmosphere, away from the hustle and bustle found elsewhere on campus.

“No other university has a facility like this,” said Director of Veteran and Military Affairs Mike Pischner ’00 of the quiet, comfortable space. He estimates that as many as 1,300 or so vets are using the center, but he recognizes that as many as 2,000 veterans are likely attending FIU. He’d like to meet them all.

Pischner can count only the  veterans who have come into the center and identified themselves because not all are coded as such in the student database. They have access to many benefits: priority course registration, Veterans Affairs (VA) work-study programs, in-state tuition and the VetSuccess on Campus program, which works with individual veterans to address their specific needs. The list of benefits for student veterans grows daily as Pischner works with campus administrators and the state and federal governments to secure funding for prospective programs like childcare and a VA medical center on campus.

Keeping student veterans in the fight

VetSuccess on Campus is one of the most important benefits offered to student veterans. Marquay Smith MS ’07, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, works with veterans and their dependents to ensure that those benefits are being used properly and that individuals have access to off-campus services when they need additional help.

“I am responsible for veterans that have academic troubles,” Smith explained. “One veteran was brought to my attention because he actually failed all his classes.

“He was dealing with some personal issues with his marriage, and that was the root of the problem,” Smith said, “but he also had some health issues he wasn’t taking care of.”

Smith was able to help the veteran by contacting the Miami VA hospital and said he is now more capable of attending his classes and is in better academic standing.

Smith’s reach goes further than academic issues; he’s also able to aid veterans with their off campus life as well.

“I had a veteran that came in who had childcare issues,” he said. “He had to be to school at six in the morning to participate in ROTC, and he didn’t have adequate care for his children.”

Because the veteran was married, Smith had to get creative in his approach to finding him childcare.

“I was able to contact the Miami VA hospital and speak to a social worker,” he said. “After speaking to a couple of social workers, they were able to recommend a couple of resources.”

Smith looks at all veterans on a case-by-case basis and works alongside the VA to get student veterans the help they need. There is no master method of dealing with their issues.

The center isn’t just a place to find academic help or health services. It’s mostly a place for student veterans to come together as a group and let loose around friends.

Still serving

Many of FIU’s student veterans are truly interested in one thing: continuing to help those who are in need.

Lentz Lefvre, a biology major and former marine, came to FIU after a successful career on Wall Street. He said he was looking for something that would leave a lasting impact on the world.

“I decided I wanted to do something to help more people, as opposed to helping some of the business owners who didn’t really need the help,” he said.

Like many vets who decide to return to college, Lefvre would like to find a way to help his fellow-vets. He is determined to become a medical doctor and hopes one day to work for the VA to help fit veterans with prosthetics.

“You had that relationship for so many years,” Lefvre says of the men and women with whom he bonded during his years of service. “It’s a band of brothers.”

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