New Military Friendly® Designation Continues with Launch of Veterans Lounge

November 5, 2015

Emporia State University has been designated a 2016 Military Friendly® School, and retired Army staff sergeant and graduate student Leon Bryson can give a host of reasons why the honor is well deserved.

The designation was announced this morning (Nov. 5) by Victory Media of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which gives the awards to top colleges, universities, community colleges and trade schools in the nation.

These institutions “are doing the most to embrace military students and to dedicate resources to ensure their success both in the classroom and after graduation,” a news release from the organization stated.

“I think Emporia State is the perfect fit for a veteran, whether you’re a combat veteran or not,” said Bryson, who is president of the Student Veterans Association of Emporia State University as well as a graduate student and a graduate teaching assistant in history. “They’re making great changes. I’m really impressed with what’s going forward.”

The changes have been a team effort involving a number of offices across campus, according to Registrar Elaine Henrie, director of financial aid, scholarships and veterans services.

“We had a concerted push to be military-aware, which makes us military-friendly,” Henrie said. “We called together a group to find out what their role is, what their role would be in providing services to veterans.”

The initial effort resulted in a booklet geared toward specific needs of veterans, who often are non-traditional students with families. It contains information not only about academics, housing and the Center for Student Involvement, but has references about local real estate agents, meal plans, career services, wellness, child care and financial aid, among other topics.

Disability Services has begun working with veterans, providing services for service-related disabilities, such as post traumatic stress syndrome, Henrie said.

“We also did an outreach to the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs, Kansas Works and information about Army Reserve and Kansas National Guard, in case there’s some additional service they want to do,” Henrie said.

University staff also took a hands-on approach to helping veterans at a state level, helping veterans gain Kansas residency status and in-state tuition rates, regardless of where they live if they are on active duty. The one-year residency requirement also is waived for those who are within three years of mustering out and within the state.

“Emporia was definitely at the table when all of those conversations were going on, because we wanted to ensure that we were doing the best thing as well,” Henrie said. The local staff also worked with the Kansas Board of Regents to arrange for the tuition and residency requirements changes.

Emporia State already had been named a top university for veterans by U.S. News & World Report in 2013. The Military Friendly® designation added credence to the advantages offered to veterans by the university.

Bryson’s wife, Sue, and children already were living in Emporia, where she had family, when he joined them here in 2010.

“I drove back and forth to Fort Riley for a lot of years,” he said. “I lost a lot of time, a lot of dead time, but I kept my family away from the drama that happens” in a military fort community.

Bryson also had served tours of duty in Haiti and in Iraq before receiving a medical discharge just short of completing 20 years of service in the Army.

He soon enrolled as an undergraduate at Emporia State, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in history and a bachelor of science in economics and continued on to graduate school.

He found the campus and the small class sizes helped acclimate veterans to the university setting.

“If you have a veteran dealing with PTSD, combat vets, you don’t want a lot of people in a class because it freaks you out,” Bryson said. “You don’t like crowds. ... They can set off triggers.”

Bryson also noticed that the camaraderie of the military could not be matched on a college campus. There was no gathering place for veterans to go for the quiet they craved, or to share their unique experiences and offer advice and encouragement, or to simply do their homework.

As president of the local student veterans, he talked with his peers at other Regents schools who had shared the same problem and from those conversations a new Veterans’ Lounge began to come together.

Over the summer, Nakita Elwood also was doing research to find ways to assist veterans as they transition to university settings.

Elwood, a graduate student, also is TradPlus/Veterans Student Support Coordinator at the university.

“I just have a passion for helping veterans,” said Elwood, who had completed a large research project last year as an Emporia State senior on veterans being underserved, homeless and suicidal.

“To me, they’re our most wonderful assets because they’re fighting for us and our freedoms. They’re doing the dirty work nobody wants to do, yet when they come back, it just really bothers me how we treat our veterans. 

Research by both Bryson and Elwood showed the lounges as a proven means for veterans to unwind and decompress together in their own special area.

“If they do have symptoms of PTSD, their best assets are other veterans, not me and you,” Elwood said. “Emporia State has taken the initiative. We want (veterans) to know how much we love them, how much we appreciate them.”

Bryson appreciates Elwood in return.

“Thankfully, Nakita came on as the Veterans’ Services person. She’s made a world of difference,” Bryson said. “She had the connections to make it happen. ... I pushed it from my end and Nakita’s the one that made it happen.”

The lounge will be dedicated at 2 p.m. Nov. 9, during a brief program and refreshments afterwards.

The new lounge is tucked into a space deep within the Center for Student Involvement in the Memorial Union on campus and will be open to all student veterans as well as to students currently serving in the National Guard or the Reserves.

The lounge and other inherent assets of Emporia State will make the university attractive for upcoming veterans wanting to get the education that military service had interrupted or delayed.

“Half a million people are going to be out of the military, and they’re going to be using their G.I. Bill,” Bryson said. “We’re completely different, and the small class size really helps. The accessibility of the professors really helps. I think it’s a perfect fit for veterans.”