Wilkes community provides ‘safe space’ for student veterans

Brick walls and wide archways pave the way to an isolated part of campus, one that is only available to an exclusive group of the Wilkes community. Specifically, to those who have served our country.

To many students, the basement of Conyngham Hall is a place they may never step foot in their four years of college. But for veterans, the underground space is vital to their everyday routine.

“It’s our safe space,” JD Reeves said of the Veteran’s Center. Reeves served for 13 years, and explained that it’s beneficial to have a place to be around those who have shared his experiences and are more mature, as most of the veterans on campus are older and have lived a much different life than the civilians that surround them.

Veterans aren’t the only ones who have access to the center, however. AmeriCorps VISTA and Veteran’s Council co-adviser Justin Davis said that the center is open to anyone in the veteran’s council as well as students that are children of veterans.

Co-adviser of the Veteran’s Council Col. Mark Kaster said that bringing students and veterans together helps “facilitate communication and a mutual respect and understanding.”

“Vets can have a calming influence on students and help them to mature, while non-vet students that care are also, in a way, therapeutic (to vets),” Kaster said.

The center has multiple rooms, one of which is to be used for relaxation and is fully-equipped with a flat-screen TV, two couches, foosball pool tables. There is also a kitchen with bright yellow walls and a workspace with computers. In the conference room, where the veteran’s council holds their meetings, hangs a sign that reads “Thank you veterans.”

With virtually no windows and a private atmosphere, there is a secluded, secure feeling upon entering the space, which is exactly what it was intended for.

“It’s important to provide veteran students with a space that they feel safe, secure and relaxed,” said Davis as he sat in his office, which is part of the center. “It gives them the opportunity to talk about their stories and not have the critique of a traditional student who may not have had the same experiences.”

The center, which opened six months ago, is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Davis also added that it is exclusive to Wilkes University, which is the only school in Luzerne County that has a veteran’s center. This is just one of the many services that the university offers to veterans. Wilkes also participates in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, which allows it to cover post-Sept. 11 veteran’s tuition expenses that exceed the highest public-in-state undergraduate tuition rate. Wilkes can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses, and VA will match the same amount.

G.I. Jobs Magazine also named Wilkes University to its list of Military Friendly Schools the past six years. This list honors the top 20 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools that are doing the most to embrace America’s service members and veterans as students, according to their website.

In addition, Wilkes has an Inter-Organizational Veteran Education Support Team (INVEST) which is designed to help military veterans, their families’ and dependents with their transition into civilian life by providing support and services to meet their specific needs in post-secondary education. One such support system on campus is veteran’s counselor Kaster.

“Before we had the center, vets didn’t know there were others… it brought them together,” Kaster said. “Wilkes is a special landing zone for those coming off active duty.”