Left to right: Marine Sgt. Michael Medina; Navy PSSA Heather Scott; Navy EO2 Alejandro Rodriguez; Army SSG Trisha Ruiz; and Navy Chief Harlan Bates.
Adjusting to college life can be a daunting experience for any student, but student veterans face even more challenges. In an effort to assist those who have sacrificed so much for their country, University of Houston-Clear Lake created the Veteran Services Office on March 1, 2013.
The VSO provides guidance and support to student veterans, including certifying student enrollment to the Veterans Affairs Regional Office, which allows students to receive their GI Bill. The office also determines eligibility for and processes Hazelwood and Hazelwood Legacy exemptions, as well as assists students with House Bill 269, which allows institutions to grant general electives of credit toward a degree based on military experience. To connect student veterans with an even larger military community, the VSO has connected with community veteran organizations in the greater Houston area.
This new office is coordinated by Army Staff Sgt. Trisha Ruiz and four additional veterans who are also currently enrolled as UHCL students. VSO objectives are certainly near and dear to Ruiz's heart. After six years of honorable service with the military police, Ruiz left the Army and used her GI Bill to pursue a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. When she earned her degree in May 2010, she was the first one in her family to graduate from college. While this was an exciting time for her, the experience was not without difficulties.
"One day I was a staff sergeant in the Army with an overwhelming amount of responsibilities and the next day I was a 25-year old college student amongst what seemed like only 18-year olds. I felt out of place; needless to say, the transition was very difficult," says Ruiz. "I made uninformed decisions and did not take full advantage of other programs available because I was not aware of them."
These challenges lead Ruiz to her current line of work. Before coming to UHCL, she helped Texas A&M University-San Antonio create a Veterans Affairs Office and served as their veterans benefits coordinator for two years.
"I made it my mission to make sure that all of the students at my institution were fully aware of all of the programs available at the federal and state level," Ruiz says. "I also wanted to connect them to the many wonderful organizations that I never took advantage of, but should have."
Ruiz has made enrollment one of her priorities at UHCL. She would like to see the military student population grow, and establish a military community on-campus for those students. In the month of October alone, the office will help graduating student veterans prepare for their careers with résumé writing and interview workshops, in addition to launching a Military Spouse Support Group.
The office is not only essential at UHCL, but imperative.
"A student should never feel as if they are an inconvenience," adds Ruiz, who feels that processing a student veteran's GI Bill should be a pleasant experience. "It should be an experience that says ‘thank you' for what you have done for this country; now let's get you the benefits that you've earned."
Under Ruiz's leadership, the office has established itself as a vital part of the university's culture and she understands its importance.
"The VSO staff must understand the value of stellar customer service and constantly review their processing procedures to identify areas of improvement to make sure students are being processed as expeditiously and accurately as possible," says Ruiz. "[This kind of office] should serve as advocates for veteran students across campuses. To be ‘military friendly' means that all departments across campus must work together to give the student the most informed answer."
To show your support for our country's veterans and their families, join UHCL for its annual Veterans Day Celebration on Monday, Nov. 11 at 10:30 a.m. The event will take place in the university's Liberty Park and will feature keynote speaker Commander R. Eric Santos, M.D., US Navy Battalion Surgeon, US Marine Corps, Afghanistan; a presentation of colors by the Clear Lake High School Jr. Army ROTC; and a UH-1 Huey helicopter and vintage military vehicles on display. For information about the Veterans Day Celebration, please visit. www.uhcl.edu/veteransday.
On Nov. 11, UHCL is also celebrating the lives of those who gave all and will participate in the National Remembrance Day Roll Call, a simultaneous reading of the names of those who paid the ultimate price for freedom in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Please consider volunteering to read names during a 30-minute period. To register, call Office of University Advancement Executive Secretary Cheryl Rohde at 281-283-2024.
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