Story By Hannah Lester / Photos Contributed
The Auburn Student Veterans Association exists to provide support, assistance and perhaps most importantly, community, to students at Auburn University.
Many veterans choose to take advantage of the GI Bill after they finish service, embarking on a path to higher education.
Veterans want to relate with others just as any student does, and the ASVA gives veterans a place to talk about their service, what they went through or just about everyday life in college.
Of course, a veteran’s experiences are often different from those of an average 18-year-old college freshman.
“Student veterans come to the school and want to find a group of people to hang out with, be a part of, that have had the same experiences as them,” said ASVA Vice President Matthew Jones.
Jones, who served in the Marines, said that when he started at Auburn it had been two years since he’d been around another veteran.
“I came to the first meeting of the semester and I was like, yeah, ‘I really like these people,’” he said. “… I had all these things that I’d been through in the Marines … I would talk to my coworkers and they had no idea what I was talking about.”
ASVA gave Jones the opportunity to share his experiences with those who understood.
Mike Patterson served in the Air Force for eight years before starting at Auburn University and joining the ASVA. Patterson has graduated and now acts as an advisor for the association.
The association was a big part of Patterson’s education, he said.
“If that organization had not existed and been there, I probably wouldn’t have graduated from Auburn University,” he said. “There’s just so much that you go through when you’re getting off of active duty and coming in to this life.”
There are things that veterans bring from their service to the college life, such as time management skills, that are beneficial, Patterson said. But there are unique difficulties. For instance, student veterans are often a lot older than their classmates.
“[The association] kept me on a level playing ground with people that didn’t have the same experiences that I did,” he said. “That have moved around, deployed, been overseas, all those types of things. I found that comfort level in that office.”
Student veterans have a specific orientation experience, Jones said, called Auburn Warrior Orientation and Learning, AWOL.
“That’s an extra orientation that we give just to student veterans, usually the Thursday before first day of classes,” Jones said. “… We take the student veteran, we introduce them to other veterans on campus, whether they’re faculty members, other students or just community leaders. And we’re like, ‘Hey, you’re Auburn. You’re a part of the Auburn family now.’”
After this, the new student meets members of the ASVA. Starting school is stressful for anyone, and the association wants to make it easier. Jones said that during orientation, the new student prints out his or her schedule and meets with other veterans who may be taking the same classes.
The association has regular business meetings, along with opportunities just to socialize among other veterans.
“I really just challenge everybody to come and spend 30 minutes to an hour with us,” Patterson said. “Just come down, sit down, see if you can find something that interests you that we do or maybe there’s a piece of something that you would like to see us do. And then we’re really going to ask you to implement that and help us figure out how to get that going.”
Every year (though not this year due to coronavirus restrictions), the association has a tailgate for members.
“We’re right here beside Foy Hall, just a three-minute walk to the stadium and we partner with this other tailgating group,” Jones said. “So by the time football season usually gets here, we’ve got, in our area here, we’ve got about six tents set up. There are three grills going and we’ve got TVs all over the place watching other games until the Auburn game starts.”
Every year, the university holds a military appreciation week and the ASVA participates in pre-game activities for all in-season sports.
“We walk down the Tiger Walk,” Jones said. “The officers of the ASVA get to go out to the field and are introduced to the crowd, somewhere around mid-first quarter. So that’s kind of a big deal for us.”
CONNECTING AND REPRESENTING:
The association serves as a voice for student veterans to the university as a whole, Jones said. For instance, the ASVA was a big part of lobbying to label Auburn University a Purple Heart campus, he said.
This involved installing Purple Heart parking spots for veterans.
“Our big thing right now that we’re working on is to get the [Auburn University Medical Clinic] to accept patients that are paid for by the VA,” he said.
“Because right now student veterans, to see somebody, they have to go to Tuskegee, Montgomery or Columbus if they’re on VA insurance.”
Patterson said that ASVA wants to help students succeed in classwork but also in finding their purpose after education.
“The way that I feel like veterans are sort of treated sometimes is a one-use purpose,” he said. “We’re there to serve a purpose in time of war, and do this and do that, but then once that’s over, people kind of forget about [veterans]. Once you’ve separated from the military, unless you tell them about it, they don’t know who you are or what you’ve done or where you’ve been. And we feel like there’s a purpose for each one of these students.”
Therefore, each October the association holds its annual golf tournament for community leaders and business owners as a way to connect members with potential hiring businesses, Jones said.
The association also provides scholarships to veterans and raises the money through an annual fundraiser, the Veterans Gala.
“We grossed, on top of our cost, $19,000,” Jones said. “… We gave out six $1500 scholarships to student veterans. And rather than doing that through the school, we give those scholarships out as checks. So the student veteran can use that money however they need to.”