UTSA adds two VetSuccess Counselors to support student veterans

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(Dec. 21, 2012) -- With support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has added two experienced VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Counselors to support student veterans who are transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce. The counselors, a part of the VetSuccess on Campus program, are liaising between UTSA and the VA on behalf of UTSA student veterans.

UTSA certifies more veterans and family members than any other four-year state supported or private university in Texas. Currently, nearly 3,000 UTSA students are using military benefits to pursue higher education. UTSA is only one of 32 campus sites in the country participating with VA in the VetSuccess on Campus program.

"We are proud to partner with UTSA as a VetSuccess on Campus school," said VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. "It's clear UTSA and VA have the same goals – to ensure our student Veterans find meaningful careers after having productive and fulfilling college experiences."

UTSA's VetSuccess on Campus Counselors, Wendy Foster and Jose Michael Silva, are Certified Rehabilitation Counselors. As representatives of both UTSA and VA, they help students navigate university services such as career assessment and counseling, financial aid services, psychological counseling and health services, disabled student services and academic advising.

As employees of VA who work alongside the UTSA staff, Foster and Silva provide veteran students with transition support services, referrals to VA medical and mental health services, adjustment and vocational rehabilitation services, and assistance in applying for additional VA benefits. They work with local disabled veterans outreach programs to do so.

>> The VetSuccess on Campus counselors are based in the Veterans Certification Office on the UTSA Main Campus (MH 3.01.26).

Foster and Silva are building upon existing infrastructure at UTSA to help veterans and their families pursue higher education and join the workforce. Currently, UTSA has Veterans Certification Offices at the UTSA Main and Downtown Campuses; www.utsa.edu/va, a website devoted to UTSA veteran students; and a Student Veterans Association, which supports veterans academically, professionally and socially.

"UTSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs feel strongly that we have a shared responsibility to help both disabled and non-disabled veterans re-enter the workforce," said Joe DeCristoforo, UTSA registrar. "This partnership is a win-win for our students. It provides streamlined communication between UTSA and VA, and it allows our organizations to share knowledge in their areas of expertise. The funding we received includes a work-study position for a student veteran."

While in the Army, Anna King was the only female officer in a forward support troop that was attached to an infantry squadron. She was discharged after she sustained a brain injury when a mortar hit her base in Iraq.

In 2010, she began pursuing her master's degree in Social Work using Chapter 31 (Vocational Rehabilitation) benefits. She hopes to build a career helping veterans like herself transition from the military to the workforce.

King says UTSA has been responsive to her needs. She works consistently with the Veteran Certification Office on the UTSA Downtown Campus and with a VA Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor who meets her on campus to ensure she is on track to earn her degree.

"I've had to fill out a lot of paper work to request accommodations from Student Disability Services, but it wasn't very difficult at all and I am able to receive the services that I need to do well – note taking, class recordings, additional time to complete assignments and certain types of classroom seating," she says. "I've explained what I need to my professors, and they have never had a problem helping me."

Army veteran Tony Doyle recently tapped UTSA for assistance in navigating university and VA services. Doyle is an undergraduate pursuing his degree in History.

Recently, a UTSA VetSuccess Counselor introduced Doyle to a VA Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. They are helping him develop and stick to a degree plan, and they will remain with him after he graduates.

"UTSA has a great rapport with student veterans, particularly now that so many have enrolled," said Doyle. "It's great that we have an office and new counselors who are making it easier to navigate the process."

"UTSA is a wonderful choice for veterans who want to pursue higher education and re-enter the workforce," said Lisa Firmin, UTSA associate provost for faculty and student diversity and recruitment. While active, Firmin, a retired colonel with a 30-year military career, was the U.S. Air Force's most senior ranking Latina.

"At UTSA, we encourage dialogue and discovery, building on our core values of integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, respect, collaboration and innovation," she added. "It is important to me and the larger UTSA community that veterans who come here find a very comfortable environment that doesn't just serve them but embraces their service and meets their needs."

While in the Air Force, Val Sullivan served in various general security and training roles such as security forces training instructor, flight chief of the Elite Guard and security forces center prisoner transfer specialist. Now, she's a UTSA master's student pursuing a degree in Social Work with support from the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Since she began attending UTSA in 2011, she has observed more services, workshops and opportunities at UTSA to serve veterans. She encourages UTSA student veterans to visit the UTSA Veterans Affairs Portal for valuable information. She also recommends they get connected with a UTSA VA representative.

"Transitioning from a military/warrior mentality to a civilian academic one is an adjustment," she notes, "however reaching out and asking for assistance will get you there a lot quicker than trying to figure it all out on your own."

Silva added, "The VetSuccess program offers a cohesive process that carries students through their education and even beyond graduation. I really encourage UTSA student veterans to look at us as a convenient and comprehensive resource. We want to help. That's why we're here."

About Wendy Foster
Foster has served as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the VA since 2001 and has served in the industry since 1993, working in the nonprofit, private and government sectors. Throughout her career, she has worked with a general case load as well as seriously ill and injured service members, Veterans and their dependents. She completed her bachelor's degree in Communications Sciences and Disorders at UT Austin in 1992 and graduated with her M.S. in Counseling with a specialization in Vocal Rehabilitation from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1994.

About J. Michael Silva
Silva is a native Texas and a veteran of the U.S. Army who has served as a Vocal Rehabilitation Counselor for the VA since 2006. Since that time, he has served a general caseload. He served as the primary Chapter 31 program orientation briefer and worked as part of the Disabled Transition Assistance Program outreach team, serving injured service members at the local instillations as they near their transition from Department of Defense to the VA. Silva completed his B.A. in Journalism in 1999 and his M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling in 2003 from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.  He has served as a Rehabilitation Counselor in the nonprofit, private and government sectors since 2003.