Memorial Day ceremony highlights UCSC's dedication to veterans

The Defense Language Institute Joint Color Guard
Dani Molina, UCSC's Veterans Education Team Support supervisor
Student Marine reservist Erica Ronquillo (photos by Dan White)

UC Santa Cruz's fledgling veterans support network is promoting this hilly, wooded campus as a sanctuary for students transitioning out of or into military life.

That was the message at UCSC's second annual Memorial Day Ceremony May 26 at the Stevenson Event Center, which was attended by more than 100 people including campus and local veterans, military brass, and UCSC administration, and included speeches, a color guard, and a dinner.

Colonel Bucky Peterson, a retired Marine career officer who spoke at the ceremony, said that the UCSC campus has become a model for four-year colleges, universities, and community colleges seeking to increase enrollment of student vets.

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This may come as a big surprise to those who associate the campus with widely publicized protests, including a 2006 demonstration that forced four military recruiters to leave the campus during Career Day. That protest garnered national headlines including detailed coverage in the New York Times.

Protestors also were active at a job fair in 2008, though their dissent remained peaceful.

Meanwhile, UCSC has grown its reputation as a vet-friendly environment.

"This campus has an air of serving veterans," said Peterson, named by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead a statewide task force dedicated to the California Veterans Education Opportunity Partnership, also known as Troops to College, which encourages members of the armed forces to attend California colleges. "It's a priority here. UCSC has organized a team to ensure that veteran student issues are heard and acted on."

Last year the UCSC vets were in the spotlight when the American Council on Education and the Wal-Mart Foundation announced a $100,000 grant to support UCSC's program, which was initiated and is overseen by Services for Transfer and Re-entry Students (STARS).

The campus was one of 20 institutions across the country that received grants as part of the ACE/Wal-Mart $2 million Success for Veterans Award Grants program.

Peterson attributed much of the campus's success to Veterans Education Team Support (VETS), a home base for vets that includes drop-in appointments, peer mentoring, academic advising, a newsletter and social events for UCSC's estimated 80 student veterans. Most have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. VETS is now entering its third year of serving UCSC students.

Recently, Peterson, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1972, and in Iraq in 2003, has been talking up VETS to Georgia state legislature members and administrators at the University of Michigan, whom he has been advising about on-campus programs for veterans.

VETS supervisor Dani Molina, an Army veteran who holds a degree from UCSC in Latin American and Latino studies, said UCSC differs from many other campuses because it has a designated space to help veterans deal with the adjustment to academic life.

At VETS, veterans can swap military stories or help each other out as peer mentors. Staffers are available for drop-ins or appointments from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

"A lot of the advising is for prospective students who are in active duty or in the community college pipeline and want to take advantage of the new GI Bill," Molina said. "That's where we're different--the fact that we have someone who is available to talk to, not just hand you a pamphlet or brochure and send you somewhere else."

Aside from student and administrative support, UCSC helps veteran students who need assistance with GI Bill applications or have questions about the benefits. The UCSC Registrar's Office has a veteran certifying official, Gloria Rodriguez, who submits GI Bill-related paperwork to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, UCSC has priority enrollment, which means that enrolled veterans are first in line for many courses, including ones that fill up quickly.

"Student veterans don't have to worry about the risk of not getting a class that is only offered once every academic year," Molina said.

Despite UCSC's anti-military reputation, student veterans here say their classmates have been treating them as fellow human beings, not political symbols.

Erica Ronquillo, 25, who has been in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for four-and-a-half years, admits that she was nervous when she transferred from a San Jose-based community college to UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 2008. Initially, she did not want to reveal her background to fellow students.

"It was a little intimidating," Ronquillo said. "You never know someone's perspective about the military. Before I was involved with the veteran's program I would not tell people I was in the military because of fear of rejection. I didn't want to start anything with anybody because I know some people have really strong views."

But students surprised her with their responses.

"A lot of people want to hear our stories," she said. "We did not expect such a welcoming setting, and we've gotten a lot of help from the Student Union Assembly."

The Veterans Resource Center is located at 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz.