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For Christopher Hough, a nursing student and petty officer first class in the United States Navy, the popcorn he makes at home doesn’t compare to the popcorn inside the Veterans Resource Center.

“Whenever I had a minute or two, I’d stop in, say hello to the work–study students at the front desk, then head straight for the popcorn machine,” Hough says. “There’s a nook at the front of the VRC with two orange chairs, and that’s where you’d see me eating my popcorn.”

Located on the first floor of Hodges Library, the center provides a home away from home for Hough and more than 500 student veterans and active duty service members across every branch of the United States Armed Forces.

But it’s not the popcorn, the quiet study area, lounge, or even the comfort dog, Shiloh, that make the VRC so special.

“It’s like our own little space,” says Kristopher Reynolds, a former Marine who is now a junior studying chemistry. “Nobody judges you there. You can be among people who understand you.”

On any given weekday, students share stories about deployment, war, or preparing for an exam in a class they never thought they’d be taking years before.

“It’s like sitting in a room with friends, even if you don’t really know the person next to you that well,” says Tanya Pettis, a sophomore social work major who served more than five years in the Air Force. “You just feel comfortable there.”

Christopher Hough, a nursing students and petty officer first class in the Navy
Christopher Hough (left), a nursing student who served as a Navy medic

From the moment a student veteran arrives on campus until they cross the graduation stage, the VRC is there to make sure the chapters they write after their military service demonstrate their extraordinary abilities and their commitment to overcome any obstacle in their path. That spirit remains alive, even as the center closed its physical doors and transitioned its services online through the summer.

Knowing the potential challenges, the VRC’s three-person staff—Director Jayetta Rogers and Coordinators Vickie Clark and Thomas Cruise—set out to answer every question a student veteran might have once the announcement was made.

“When you are active duty, everything is in person; a lot of veterans don’t operate in a virtual setting,” says Cruise. “This is an extremely resilient population. But they need reassurance, too.”

Cruise wrote personal emails to every student.

Kristopher Reynolds
Kristopher Reynolds

Their stories are all unique: Pettis, a former weapons loader on a Stealth Bomber, suffered an injury during her service and walks with a cane. She’s served on a panel for one of the VRC’s Green Zone trainings for faculty and staff to learn more about campus veterans. Reynolds, a recent Goldwater Scholar, moved to the US from Germany in high school, joined the Marines, then after four years came to UT, where he’s spent each summer conducting research at Harvard. Hough, a Navy medic who arrived last fall, has worked closely with Cruise to develop a degree plan that would see him accomplish his goal of graduating in three years in order to be back taking care of fellow servicemen and women at military hospitals in the Pacific.

The VRC has let him know that they are there to help with any question or concern he has.

“If I wanted to right now, I could pick up the phone and call Tom, Jayetta, or Vickie and I know they’d do the best for me,” Hough says.

Cruise knows firsthand how hard it can be for student veterans to adapt to civilian life and college at the same time. Before arriving at UT in 2015 to complete a bachelor’s degree in journalism and electronic media, he served six years in the Air Force.

“That’s one my favorite things about this job,” Cruise says. “I get what they’re going through.”

If students didn’t respond to their initial emails, Rogers, Clark, and Cruise have followed up to make sure they were doing OK.

Many, like Pettis, are concerned about how the transition to online classes affects their GI Bill benefits, which include a monthly stipend used to pay utilities, rent, and other expenses. These benefits are vital for student veterans and their family members during their time in school.

“I was stressed out,” says Pettis, who works as a manager at FedEx on top of her classes.

The VRC staff spent hours back and forth on phone calls and in emails with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide answers for Pettis and hundreds of other student veterans.

“They always got back to me the same day with what the situation was, when I could expect an answer, and who that answer would come from,” Pettis says.

It’s a typical military attitude: “Student veterans want it straight and honest—no fluff, don’t beat around the bush,” says Cruise.

The VRC has received other questions, too, about adapting to online classes and registering for the summer and fall semesters. With three kids—nine, eight, and two years old—at home, and a fourth on the way, Hough can find it hard to concentrate. But he’s determined. Cruise, who is completing an online master’s degree in educational psychology and counseling this semester, is quick to share tips from his own experience:

“Set out a time in your day to study. Take notes, even if you’ve got PowerPoints, so you keep the muscle memory intact. Wake up, take a shower, eat your breakfast, and get on Zoom for class. Stay disciplined, like you’re on duty.”

Nineteen new student veterans will arrive at UT this summer, joined by more than 90 others in the fall. The VRC staff has already reached out to every one of them to let them know about the resources it offers. Cruise is working on developing online orientation sessions for transfer students as well as a virtual tour of the center to make the transition even smoother.

The center is also preparing to send out red-white-and-blue cords as well as its commemorative graduation medallion to all of its graduates. Even without a physical graduation in May, Rogers, Clark, and Cruise want veterans to know they are valued just the same.

“This is the Volunteer state,” Cruise said. “We take care of our veterans.”

CONTACT

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)