Salem State, VITAL and the “New Student Veteran”

Program Manager Alisa Bennett explains the details to the VA’s VITAL program to Salem State students and faculty on November 7, 2016, at Salem State’s Viking Hall on Central Campus. (Photo/ Larry Saggese)

Salem, Mass., Nov. 16, 2016 - The “new student veteran” can and does succeed at Salem State University, thanks to support from a national program.

On Nov. 7, students and others had a chance to learn more about the program at a meeting in Vikings Hall on SSU’s Central Campus organized by Salem State’s Enrollment Services and Veteran Affairs Director Samuel Ohennesian, and by members of the Veteran Assistants Veteran Integration to Academic Leadership program, also known as VITAL.

The VITAL program is a national health initiative focused on aiding veterans on all levels with their transition into a college environment while helping them meet their individual educational goals. The program’s mission is to provide world class healthcare and improve the overall mental health of veterans while supporting their successful integration into college and university campuses, through seamless access to Veterans Administration (VA) health care services and on-campus clinical counseling.

VITAL provides consultation services to campus community members with the hopes of educating not only active military veterans, but faculty and staff as well. The program provides on campus mental health screenings and referrals for eligible VA student Veterans. Simply put, the VITAL initiative looks to serve as a bridge to both academic and mental health success for Veterans.

According to Ohennesian, SSU enrolls roughly 250 Veteran students annually with a majority of them being transfer students since the VITAL program was initiated at Salem State roughly 4 ½ years ago. The six-year graduation rate for full-time transfer Veterans is at 77 percent, compared to a 60 percent graduation rate for four-year full-time freshmen.

Financially, veterans who are eligible for the post-9/11 GI Bill receive payments for all mandatory expenses relating to academic resources at Salem State. This works out to $1000 for books and an allowance just north of $3000 for housing on an annual basis.

Alisa Bennett, a VITAL Program Manager for the past three years who is based out of the Bedford Massachusetts VA location, led the Tuesday’s presentation to both faculty and students a like.

Along with Salem State, the Bedford VITAL location has local ties and partnerships with Middlesex Community College, North Shore Community College, Northeastern University, Bunker Hill Community College, Mount Wachusett Community College, Endicott College, Fitchburg State University and Mass Bay Community College, with the hopes to expand to more Boston based systems as well.

“The ultimate goal would be to help other VA’s pick up the VITAL program and not necessarily put us out to random places that we aren’t covering,” said Bennett.

“Right now we are doing it slowly, but ultimately the goal would be to help train and translate what we are doing into a manual and then provide that across the country so that they are seeing the success of what VITAL is doing and convincing them to pick it up locally so that they can have the resources wherever they are,” she added.

Bennett also noted that she expects this to take some time, when asked for a time frame to reach these goals Bennett chuckled and replied with, “it will take time, I don’t have a time frame. There is no such thing in the VA.”

Mike Medur, active VITAL student and military veteran is working towards becoming a social worker, holds both a peer and clinician role with the program.

“I have been able to sit in the actual office in the Veterans chair and even from that perspective I have been able to learn a lot to what is available just for me working with the program,” said Medur. “A lot of resources are untapped because the information can be hard to disseminate.”

Medur serves as the best of both worlds, providing a voice as both the Veteran student and mentor, which is important in terms of creating a layer of trust for incoming veterans looking for VITAL assistance.

For 25-year-old Air Force veteran Cody Croft, the VITAL program is new to him.

Croft, a Danvers Fire Fighter, is currently enrolled in six classes at North Shore Community College with the expectation of graduating this December with an Associates degree in fire science.

“This is all new to me,” said Croft. “I have been able to utilize the GI bill so far but I would definitely be willing to listen to how VITAL can offer assistance as well.”

Croft actually plans on transferring to Salem State once he graduates.

“This is the kind of stuff that all student vets need to be made aware of, Im excited to learn more,” he added.

In terms of specific eligibility qualifications, Bennett explained that not all veterans qualify for VA healthcare, which would be the first hurdle to clear.

“There is a 24 month of active duty service, and/or deployment or disability, so there is a lot of different things that we need to check out,” said Bennet. “That’s usually done right away, within 24 hours, and once they are in our system there is no other time that we need to check back in to see if they qualify for anything.”

Veterans seeking academic or mental health assistance should contact the VITAL program.

Left to right: Mike Medur, Ben Whelihan, Sam Ohennesian and Alisa Bennett pose for a group photo following the New Veteran Student meeting that took place at SSU’s Viking Hall on Monday, November 7, 2016. (Photo/ Larry Saggese)