It can be difficult for a school’s VA office to handle all of the questions or problems student veterans may face. With over 700 veterans at UTD, each with their own unique situation, one would expect a vibrant and active on campus organization to help address these issues, but that hasn’t been the case. Guy Parnell, an active member of Dallas Veterans at UTD and a Navy vet, said that last year the group only had three or four active members. But Parnell says the problem hasn’t been a lack of interest, but logistics. “We’re veterans, and we like to get together and hang out but most of us are adults and we commute and have families. It’s difficult to get everyone to drive back to campus on their day off for a social event.” While many prior-service men or women could really use the support of an on-campus organization, it’s difficult to pin down such a large group of working adults, many with families, to hold events.
One of the most difficult aspects of keeping the organization functional has been student turnover. “No other VA group before has established a long term presence. We want this organization to continue, not just be a short term social group,” said Parnell.
While leadership is key in any successful organization, I think the biggest challenge is going to be a clear mission objective. In the past the DV@UTD has been mostly a social club that would occasionally try and hold events. An on campus organization would be far more effective by focusing on practical support. Having someone who can help you find the paperwork you need and get it filled out would be awesome, but so would having someone who can help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls of college life. Don’t get me wrong, I think there should be an element of fraternity and human connection beyond forms and advice, but first and foremost the Veteran’s Center needs to be able to address the practical needs of UTD Vets. Dallas Veterans at UTD president Michael Rials has very specific ideas about what UTD’s veterans organization should look like. “It’s a social network to help acclimate military members to a new world, going from military life to civilian life. To pull together all the resources that are available to veterans and family members.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and Rials, a veteran of the Marine Corps together with his Vice President, Matthew Melton, former Navy SEAL, have experienced firsthand the difficulty service members can face when trying to re-adjust to civilian life. Often the struggles veterans face are not easily understood by non-veterans, and Rials sees the creation of a Veterans Center as similar to other organizations like the Multicultural Center, “It’s targeting unique individuals, a specific group of society to give them resources and information to succeed in an academic world.” Rials is clearly passionate about more than just a building or a facility, he sees student veterans struggling and wants to help.
It takes more than just good ideas to make a lasting impact and Rials is spearheading the effort to take to turn the organization from a small social club to a robust and thriving campus presence. “I want to see a functional veterans center where all the resources available to veterans are available in one centralized location, helping the university to become more vet friendly by helping vets integrate into the school.” Rials has already made significant progress on this mission by working with the school’s faculty and administration to secure several offices and a lounge area in the McDermott Library building. At the beginning of the spring semester Rials only had four active members, as he began reaching out to veterans, the numbers increased to 40, a few months of campaigning later he has over 120 members signed up with the organization, myself included. Rials said he couldn’t have done it without the help of the faculty and staff who he described as “incredibly supportive.”
While Rials has made significant headway in moving the group forward, but the problem of student migration still looms on the horizon. Rials is determined not to let the group’s hard work go to waste, and says he plans to stay involved in the organization even after graduation. To him the mission is too important to give up on. As much as I hope to see a thriving veteran’s center at UTD, it’s going to take commitment from more than just the leadership. UTD’s student veterans need to come together and sacrifice their time to help attend, host and participate in upcoming events. Building relationships can be hard in any organization, but when most of your members live and work not only off campus, but in other cities, it is crucial. Rials plans to formally open the new Veterans Center in the upcoming months, and while the team is proud, they know that this is only the beginning.