‘Every step of the way’: Office of Veteran Services helps veteran students transition into civilian life


Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer

From left, Dan Fisher, Army vet; Bart Womack, Pitt faculty and Army vet; and Shawn Ellies, Pitt staff and Army vet, at Wednesday’s Veterans Affinity group luncheon in the University Club.

By James Paul, Staff Writer

When Tim Wood finished his five-year tour in the military as a fire support coordinator and started his graduate degree at Pitt, he said the environment change was “frightening as hell.”

“You’re in Afghanistan, you’re in Kandahar, you’re in Ramadi, you’re in Sadr City and then I come to a college campus and it doesn’t make sense,” Wood said. “It’s just like, dude, what am I doing here?”

Wood is an Iraq war army veteran who, after completing his master’s degree in public and international affairs at Pitt, started working for the Office of Veteran Services as the outreach coordinator. The Office of Veteran Services is located in Posvar Hall and, according to Wood, connects veteran students to financial resources, mental health counseling and other university services. There are over 500 veteran students at Pitt and Wood said the “OVS is with these folks every step of the way.”

“We are doing everything we can to sort of make it less of a burden for them because I know the burden that they carry,” Wood said. “I carried that myself, going through school, so we help them with that.”

Wood said the OVS is the first stop for veteran students arriving on campus. Beyond “financial aid services and university navigation,” the OVS provides veteran students with a “safe space” to connect with other veteran students, according to Wood. 

“There was something that Vietnam vets did when they came back,” Wood said. “They felt like they didn’t have space. So they created these lodges, these bars, and, you know, culturally, you see the shift to the office of Veterans Services across universities, I think are becoming more like the [lodges] of the Vietnam era. It’s institutionalized. It’s a way for student veterans to come together to make a friend.”

Wednesday’s Veterans Affinity group luncheon in the University Club.
(Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer )

The OVS is a large space with multiple lounges and offices. Many veteran students visit the space in between classes to do homework or socialize with other vets. Aleeya Babb, who served six years in the Navy as an avian electrician, said it’s where she’s met most of her friends.

“My main friends that I’ve made have been from that office,” Babb, a junior business management major, said. “I don’t generally make true friends with the people that I am in class with. It never gets to the same level that I have with people at the office.”

Babb said the age gap and the different levels of maturity with traditional students have made her associate more with other veteran students.

“It can be difficult finding like-minded people, in a way you know, with the military,” Babb said. “You just develop certain habits that maybe other people don’t have and it can be a little hard connecting with people after the fact. I found that the Office of Veterans Services is definitely a good foundation for building those connections with people.”

Eric Meyer, a professor in the department of rehabilitation science and technology, is a trained clinical psychologist who worked at a Veterans Affairs medical center near Fort Hood, Texas, for 13 years. He said veteran students are “on average doing very well” academically, but still may face numerous mental health struggles. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11-20% of Americans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Veterans, just like people in general, can experience any mental health problems, but war zone service and exposure to psychological trauma definitely increases the susceptibility to post-traumatic stress, depression and the various anxiety disorders,” Meyer said.

According to Meyer, there are inherent challenges for veteran students making the transition from military to civilian life. 

“There are also big cultural differences between military culture and campus culture,” Meyer said. “Respect for authority and so forth is much different in the military than it is in on a college campus where academic freedom and equality of ideas is more rampant.”

According to Ahmed Ghuman, the executive director of the University Counseling Center, the OVS offers the free ”Let’s talk” drop-in consultation service. “Let’s talk” is a program free to all Pitt students that Ghuman said can “serve as an entry point for counseling service” for veteran students. 

“Once a student meets with a clinician, they would create a personal care plan for the veteran student that provides a holistic treatment that meets their unique and specific needs; this also includes connecting them to campus and community resources,” Ghuman said. “There is no waitlist to speak with a clinician.”

Ghuman said the Counseling Center is partnering with OVS to provide a support group for veterans. Ghuman also said the Counseling Center is developing a workshop to help veterans through the transition into college. He didn’t provide a timeline for these initiatives.

Ghuman said students can utilize drop-in hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Nordenberg Hall for same-day service, or they can call the office during business hours to schedule an appointment.

To any veterans making the call about pursuing higher education through the GI Bill, Wood said the OVS is at Pitt to help them “navigate life.”

“You know, this is the free college you get because you worked for it, because of your blood, your sweat, your tears and your absolute disregard for yourself,” Wood said. “We’re here to help you in your transition. We’re here to care.”