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Framingham State celebrates military-connected students

Leighah Beausoleil / THE GATEPOST

By Leighah Beausoleil


Coordinator of Veteran and Military Services Christine Denaro hosted a banner signing and an open house for the center this week in honor of Veterans Day.

Denaro officially began serving as coordinator Oct. 17.

On Nov. 7 and 8, Denaro hosted a table in the McCarthy Center lobby for community members to write messages on stickers to veteran and military-connected students that were then placed on a banner. The banner is currently located outside the center in Dwight Hall.

“In honor of Veterans Day on Friday, I thought this would be a good opportunity for the Framingham State University community to recognize the veterans who served our country, and this was just my small way of acknowledging them,” Denaro said.

Also on Nov. 7, Denaro held an open house at the Veteran and Military Services Center for community members to check out the space, learn more about the center, and meet her.

In her new position, Denaro said she has three goals.

She said she would like to increase the enrollment of military-connected students, which is currently approximately 150 students.

Denaro said she would also like to get those students more engaged with the center. “I hope to create relationships with our community to get resources that they may need outside the college.”

In her role, she said she can help military-connected students with anything from educational to personal needs, including applying to the University and for the education benefits they receive through the military.

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said beyond the center, military-connected students have resources available to them through CASA, the Counseling Center, and additional educational, medical, and mental health benefits they receive through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Benjamin Day, Counseling Center director, said his office has “extensive” experience working with military-connected students.

“Many of our licensed therapists have backgrounds in trauma-informed counseling, especially for individuals with PTSD,” Day said. “While our trauma-informed counseling services can be accessed by all students, many military-connected students may find this approach useful for their particular needs.”

Denaro said when it comes to the transition from service to education, veterans may struggle with feeling disconnected from the University community, especially if they are older, have families and responsibilities outside of school, and/or generally have more life experience than the average student.

She said when military-connected students are discharged, they are “kind of thrown into the abyss” because they are transitioning from always being told what to do to trying to navigate the independence of college life.

Denaro added veterans may also struggle with a loss of camaraderie as they have departed from the same group of people they have been with for years, but said the center can be a place “where veterans can congregate and get that sense of camaraderie back.

“They support each other,” she said. “It's such an amazing thing when you see two veterans who don't even know each other and they just connect. It's quite amazing. They're really good for each other.”

Nowak Borrego said the best way for the community to support military-connected students is to encourage them to come to the center and point them toward resources.

She added, “When they recognize that the trouble the student is experiencing is actually that of a veteran student, again, referring them over to resources that might be more related to their experience.”

Denaro said she would like to host a webinar for faculty and staff informing them on what they should know about military-connected students.

“A veteran came to me when I first started and had expressed that one of his professors said something to the effect of, ‘I can't believe how undisciplined the student veterans are here,’” she said.

She added this is “concerning” to her because that “lack of discipline” the professor is seeing could be caused by an unseen cause, including PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.

“But again, he doesn't know what he doesn't know,” so she said she would like to provide that information to the FSU community.

Denaro said her advice to military-connected students is not to be afraid to ask for help.

“It's so ingrained in them that asking for help is a sign of weakness,” she said, adding at one point, it was for them because it could affect promotions in their jobs.

“So they're still afraid to admit that there's a problem, but they can come to me with no judgment - anything that they need, and I'll get them the help that they need,” Denaro added.

“Asking for help is a sign of strength, so don't be afraid to ask,” she said.

Nowak Borrego said in her role, she advocates for resources and tries to check in and be supportive in any way she can, including answering questions and helping to fix anything that may not be working for military-connected students.

She said she and Denaro work together to help students who are deployed manage their responsibilities at the University.

Nowak Borrego added they “try to assure that we are not disadvantaging them for choosing to be deployed.”

As an example, she discussed the students who are members of the National Guard and were being deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic for various short-term activities.

She said they will “work with their faculty and our institutional policies to make them feel appreciated, supported, and successful as a student here, while also managing the responsibility and service to the United States.”

Nowak Borrego said Framingham State also “collaborates with Boston College to offer an ROTC opportunity.

“Students can participate in ROTC classes here at Framingham State, and then they work on the unit at BC to do military commitments,” she added.

Nowak Borrego said, “I think our military-connected students are wonderful assets to our classrooms and our student population because of the experiences they bring.”

She said she would also like to highlight how the resources offered through the center are also for students who may have family enlisted in the military or want to enlist themselves.

She added they can come to the center and talk to Denaro and other military-connected students and find the “people who care because they [military-connected students] themselves were hoping they had people back at home who cared.”

Glenn Cochran, associate dean of students and student life, said although the majority of military-connected students are commuters, there have been a “good number” of them in the past who lived in the residence halls.

Cochran said Residence Life hosted a veteran- and military-themed floor in the past, but because of the pandemic, they have not continued to do so.

Kathleen Barnard, student engagement coordinator for the Henry Whittemore Library, said the National Library of Medicine has a selection of books categorized as “graphic medicine.”

“There's a whole bunch of graphic novels out there that are first-person experiences and the idea behind graphic medicine is to help patients learn through other people's experiences and in a very accessible way,” Barnard said. “One of the ones that they have is specifically for veterans.”

After hearing about this, Barnard said she wants to possibly host a discussion in collaboration with the center about this book.

In regard to Veterans Day, she said, “Make sure to thank veterans on Veterans Day. They sacrifice a lot and their families sacrifice a lot, so just make sure to thank them.”

Alex Morais, a senior, said he served actively in the Marines for five years and continues to serve through a reserve element.

Morais said he likes to come to the center to “calm and sort of decompress either before or after the gym, and I'll use it in between classes.”

He said he recommends military-connected students to come to the center and use the resources it has to offer even if it is just to use the microwave or fridge, adding he was not initially aware of the place his freshman year until “I started poking around and I recommend they do the same.”

Morais said for him, the transition from service to education was “difficult.

“What I always say is, ‘I miss the clowns and not so much the circus,’” he added. “You lose a lot of the strong connections you have with people.

“My biggest piece of advice I would give myself is that you can still maintain and develop strong connections within, and outside, of the military,” he said. “You don't have to embrace - we have a saying - ‘embrace the suck,’ with each other in order to have that strong connection. You can still find people that share the same traits and values.”

JohnMichael Chase, a senior English major, said he enlisted in the National Guard in 2017 and continues to serve.

Chase said his transition from service to education was “painless” as Framingham State is “adaptable and welcoming to service members, especially many of the professors, who have been very understanding of the flexibility that's required for soldiers who have different drill schedules and things that need to get done outside of normal class time.”

This “flexibility” is key to how the community can help military-connected students like himself, he said.

He added typical college students may have the weekend to read and complete homework assignments, while students like himself will have limited time and internet access.

Chase said he recommends all military-connected students to “capitalize” off the educational benefits that are offered to them.

“I am going to college having paid nothing but for gas and books,” he said. “That's not even to mention all the different industry certificates they can get, especially for the IT world, which they can get reimbursed for.

“This might not be common knowledge, but many of the trainings that we have done in the military are transferable into college credits,” he added. “That can potentially shorten your degree. For myself, my own training essentially gave me a free minor in computer science.”

Stevie Margotto, a senior business management major, said he was active in the Navy from 2013 to 2017 working as a parachute rigger.

Margotto said the transition to college life was “difficult,” but the center and its resources were helpful for him.

He added, “My biggest piece of advice would be don't be afraid to reach out. There are so many people out there that want to help - they want to make it easier for us to continue to be successful.”

Spencer Carlin, a junior computer science major, said he was active in the Marines for five years following his graduation from high school in 2014.

“The transition back to life/college was mentally challenging at first since the tempo of the military is so stressful and fast all the time,” Carlin said. “After some time of convincing myself and understanding that it's OK to be doing nothing, occasionally, that mental burden goes away a little.”

He said the community can support military-connected students by being understanding of the different lives they lead and how “mentally taxing” it can be.

Carlin said his advice for new veterans is to “understand that taking time to take care of yourself and personal issues is OK. Stay on top of assignments before it gets stressful for you.

“If you think you're really stressed out because of assignments or exams, imagine the worst day you ever had in the military - I know you've had one - and compartmentalize your academic chaos the same way you did for the military chaos on that day,” he said. “It works wonders.”

He added, “Faculty and staff here will work with you to help you solve the issues at hand. You should use their services.”


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