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By Jarod Urrutia
Fourth-year student, Journalism
Kari Leslie knows all too well about the struggles veterans and their families face – after all, she’s part of a military family herself. So, when the opportunity presented itself to take over as the first full-time coordinator of Cal Poly’s Veterans Success Center, Leslie jumped at the chance to help veteran students and dependents navigate college life. With six months of experience in the position now under her belt, Leslie spoke about her role in helping student veterans achieve success.
What drew you to work at the Veterans Success Center? Do you have experience working with veterans in the past?
I was a military wife, now a military widow. We were active duty for about 18 years, and my daughter actually graduated from Cal Poly! When I first came to Cal Poly (to work as program coordinator for Upward Bound), I really wanted to be able to make the experience for military dependents and veterans a better one. So, when this opportunity came up, it was really a great thing! It was always kind of my dream to work at an organization like USO and do things that would benefit vets and their dependents, so this is a great opportunity for me to do that.
As a military wife, I learned that military dependents are very civic minded. I ran family readiness groups—which are support groups for families—for the 18 years my family was active duty. It involved taking care of family members, especially those going through deployments and things like that, and helping families and military members while they were stationed overseas or deployed. We spent a lot of time overseas, too, and really built a family community that way.
What are some core philosophies you keep in mind when working with students with a military background?
There is no one set way to help a veteran or a dependent. You really have to listen to their individual needs. Benefits can get especially confusing! Veterans can get benefits from the federal government, Veterans Affairs benefits, CalVet benefits – and then there are a lot of people who are out of benefits completely while they’re still trying to fund their education.
On top of that, there's that really personal aspect – that everybody has different needs. Our veterans are generally much older than the traditional student. Then there are dependents who, a lot of the time, are here while their family is on active duty – so their parents are far away. That’s a unique thing. There’s no one way to look at it and say, “Oh, this is the way you help them.” You just have to be willing to listen carefully and find out what they need.
What are some struggles Cal Poly student veterans face?
One of the things that I would say is difficult is wending their way through the web of benefits; figuring out what they're eligible for. Usually post-9/11 Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944
(G.I. Bill) benefits last only 36 months. So if you're an engineer, you're going to run out of that before your education is complete.
I think one of the really big things that we're working on now is that while our veteran students get a lot of training and experience in the military, they’re not getting school credit for that work. Cal Poly is really dedicated to making that situation better. We’re trying to make sure that veterans get credit for prior learning – it’s something we’re working on and trying to figure out.
Walk me through a regular work day for you at the Veterans Success Center.
A regular workday is absolutely awesome right now! We have about 35 to 40 students that I see, on average, daily in the center. They come in and out in between classes, and they hang out. The center is a social place, so they sit and talk to each other and really get a chance to build some relationships. They also tutor each other and do a lot of studying.
I get to be involved in a lot of great conversations with a lot of really interesting people and answer questions. My biggest job is just to provide resources and be an advocate for whatever they need – whether or not it has anything to do with the military. Right now, we see a lot of new students coming in, and parents dropping them off and sending them out into the world. It’s really nice, because I get to reassure every family that even though they might be far away, I'm right here for their student. It’s just awesome.
What is the most rewarding aspect of working with veterans? What keeps you coming back?
It is an embarrassment of riches being in the center every day – it's just amazing! I enjoy just listening to the unique stories that they all have to tell. It’s hard to put it into words. It's just being a part of that and being a part of their lives. It’s about being someone who helps such awesome people. I love what I do, and I could not ask for a better job.
How can students best utilize the Veterans Success Center?
Ask a lot of questions. Never be scared to ask. If you don't know something, then someone here will be able to help you. I’m really lucky that I get to employ some of our dependents and veterans under the Federal Work-Study program, so they get to work with me in the center helping their fellow veterans and dependents, too. They have so much knowledge to share! I would say the best thing a student can do is to come in to the center to build those relationships – and ask a lot of questions.
How can other students get involved with the Veterans Success Center, or assist in helping veterans at Cal Poly?
We have a lot of opportunities. We’re always looking for supporters to join our club, the Student Veterans Organization, or the S.V.O. As an organization, we’re trying to give back to our local communities. San Luis Obispo has a lot of homeless veterans; we want to help them, and we’re in a place where we can do that, but we also love it when people join us in that mission.
For more information on the Veterans Success Center follow them on Facebook at @calpolyveterans, or visit https://veteransuccess.calpoly.edu.
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