Office supports military students and veterans
Tahaney al-Balawi is fluent in two languages.
A U.S. Navy veteran, she’s been an interpreter and translator for both the military and the Department of Defense, putting her Arabic and English skills to use in locations including the Navy’s support base in Bahrain.
But when she came to Cal U as a graduate student, the words she appreciated most came from the staff in the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“They were really welcoming, from the very first email,” al-Balawi says. “It was completely different from any other schools I contacted. I knew they were going to be there for me.”
That’s the mission of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, says director Robert Prah, a captain in the Army Reserve. The office makes services available to about 175 on-campus students who are current or former service members, as well as nearly 500 military students, veterans and their dependents enrolled in Cal U’s online degree programs.
“We want to build that sense of camaraderie, of being part of something bigger,” Prah says.
“We are all like-minded,” adds Marine Corps veteran Don Fike, a geology major and a former student worker in the office. “It’s like a code: ‘one team, one fight.’ We all help each other out.”
Active since the mid-1970s, the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs moved last year to a wing of Residence Hall E. A large American flag welcomes students to a suite of rooms where they can meet with Prah or assistant director Keith Medley, a Navy veteran.
The pair helps student veterans apply for benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill. They assist reserve and National Guard members who are preparing to deploy or return to campus. And they actively recruit new students, promoting Cal U’s military-friendly atmosphere and student support services.
“It’s the little things that count,” says Prah, recalling a reception for graduating veterans and military students.
“It meant a lot to our students that President Jones was there. The support of this administration makes Cal U special.”
- Robert Prah
Director, Office of Military and Veteran Affairs
The University works with veterans to make best use of the education benefits they’ve earned. And Cal U discounts tuition for current and former service members from all military branches, as well as their spouses and eligible dependents, when they enroll through the University’s Global Online division.
The financial support is critical, but finding a strong, supportive peer group can be equally important.
“Some of us have been through experiences, like combat, that civilians don’t understand. We find it easier talking to another vet rather than a civilian,” Fike says.
“The military is like a sisterhood or brotherhood,” al-Balawi explains. “When you meet other veterans, automatically you click, because you have that military background in common. You know they’re always going to help you out. You can rely on them.”
The transition to campus life can be challenging for current and former service members, whose experiences – and even age – may set them apart from traditional college students. When veterans first arrive in Prah’s office, they often ask where they can meet other vets.
Prah points to the lounge in Building E, where students gather to discuss projects, relax between classes or use computers that can read the “smart” military ID cards required to access benefits.
Another answer is the Veterans Club. Active for more than 40 years, the student organization is open to all former and current service members. In addition to socializing, club members raise scholarship funds, collect toys for needy children and raise awareness about important issues, such as suicide among veterans.
“When you’re in the military you’re always busy, seven days a week,” Prah says. “When these students come back to school, they want to find a group and get involved. They still have that desire to serve, to give back to other people.”
Military training is goal-oriented – and for students, that goal is a college degree. To recognize their academic achievements, Prah brought the SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society to campus.
August 2018 graduates al-Balawi and Fike are among Cal U’s first inductees.
“It’s a big accomplishment, to be recognized for academic excellence as a veteran,” says al-Balawi, adding that she’s proud to list her SALUTE lifetime membership on her resume.
“I want my employer to see that.”
Both on-campus and online students may qualify for the honor society, and for scholarships earmarked for students with military ties.
“Our online students want that connection, too,” says Prah, who leads campus tours for veterans who come to California – often for the first time – to take part in Commencement.
Another academic initiative aims to bring older veterans to campus, especially those from the Korean and Vietnam war eras. A 12-credit certificate program, scheduled to start this winter, looks at the History of War, Service and the American Experience.
It’s open to all Cal U students, Prah says. And it will give veterans an opportunity to earn an academic credential, even if military service derailed their college plans decades ago.
It’s one more way to build a cohesive, inclusive community.
With his graduation date in sight, Fike offers this advice to veterans just beginning their Cal U journey:
“You do have support – you have us, the other vets, on your side. Utilize it!”
By Christine Kindl, VP for communications and marketing at Cal U