Karen Gilbert was in the Air Force. Penny Watson served in the Marine Corps and Jessica Willis was deployed to Iraq twice during her time in the Army. She’s working on her Ph.D. in sociology; Watson, on her master’s in public administration. Gilbert got her undergraduate degree here.
The trio's history as members of the military and as UNH students make them the perfect unit to head the university’s Military & Veteran Services (MVS) Center where they work to create community and smooth passage for former and current service members who are pursuing their degrees. Seventy percent of the approximately 400 students MVS works with are veterans, members of the National Guard or reserves. The rest are military dependents using their parents’ military educational benefits.
The center moved to Hood House in April 2018, into a space with almost twice the square footage of its first home in Thompson Hall, which opened in 2015. Before then there wasn't an office on campus; questions were answered as they arose and benefits were processed by one person in the Registrar’s Office.
“We’re not advisors, we’re not financial aid experts. But we can make the contacts for our students.'
The new space has a study hall (the computers were bought through a grant from the UNH Parents Association), two private study rooms, a lounge for socializing (outfitted with sofas and recliners donated by Bob’s Discount Furniture and a TV given by a previous staff member) and a game room. There is also a spacious conference room for such things as student presentations, seminars and the occasional potluck. (The Student Armed Forces Association bought the table; the chairs came from the center’s budget.)
“It’s been a long four years from when we got our first space to here, but we are so happy with how far we’ve come, and we are appreciative of how UNH supports our folks,” says Gilbert, director of Military and Veteran Services. “We just want people to know we’re here and ready to help.”
That help includes assisting new students in obtaining their educational benefits and making sure they have the best service-connected disability rating possible. The center also connects students with tutors, career planning services, professional networking opportunities and the Student Armed Forces Association. Orientation programs specific to service members are held fall and spring. And Green Zone training is offered to faculty and staff to help increase their awareness regarding the issues and concerns student-veterans may face, and the ways the UNH community can support them
“We’ve provided Green Zone training to about 200 faculty so far,” Gilbert says. “It gives them an awareness of what it is like coming from active duty and what veterans might need. We also advocate for students with their professors when it comes to being out of class for National Guard drills, for example, or other situations.
“We want people to know we’re here,” Willis adds. “In my classes, I’ve talked with professors who didn’t know we existed. We’d love to get more requests for help.”
And then there is UNH Salutes the Troops, a weeklong event that kicks off this year on Nov. 10 with a UNH hockey game, where the servicemen and women will be honored, followed by a series of daily events including free chair massages, a pancake breakfast, 100 free lunches at Holloway Common and a day of free parking in the visitors lot.
Gilbert says she is impressed with how well she and Willis and Watson have meshed, given they have only been working together for a year. But their common goal has made it easy.
“We’re pretty well connected,” Gilbert says. “We’re not advisors, we’re not financial aid experts. But we can make the contacts for our students. We can guide them on things like changing their major, on getting their benefits processed. Whatever we can do to make things go more smoothly — we all do as much as we can.”