VETS program aims for success of students transitioning from the military to Baylor

The Veterans Education and Transitional Services program also aims to encourage awareness for faculty and staff members on accommodating veteran students. Mia Crawford | Photographer

By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer

Each year, Baylor veteran students receive help during their transition from the military to college life through the Veterans Education and Transitional Services program.

The VETS program was founded in 2011 by now-retired professor of educational psychology, Dr. Janet Bagby. Despite the wide array of services the VETS program now provides, it originally started as an informal grassroots movement.

“I had no roadmap. I had no business plan,” Bagby said. “I just literally started knocking on doors on campus and asking, ‘Who will help me get services for our veterans?’ And I’m thrilled to say that I’ve never been prouder of Baylor. Every door I knocked on, I was received very graciously — from the president’s office [downward] — and was told oftentimes, ‘We knew we needed to be doing something to support our student veterans during the transition from being in the military to being a full-time college student.’”

The program initially began as a student organization, Veterans of Baylor, which still exists today. Bagby was then granted an office in the Baylor ROTC building, and for the first years of the program, she ran it part-time with the help of a graduate assistant. Eventually, the university hired Kevin Davis, the current manager of the VETS program, to run it full-time.

Out of more than 1,300 military-connected students on campus (whose parents or spouses have served), there are just under 100 undergraduate students and roughly 350 graduate students with past military experience, according to Davis. While the VETS program is aimed at assisting all military-connected students on campus, the undergraduate veteran population is oftentimes the chief focus.

“A lot of the gaps exist there because they’re posttraditional students,” Davis said. “They’re older students. They’re married, have kids. They’ve got this other kind of stage of life that they’ve been through that’s unique.”

For undergraduate veteran students, the VETS program integrates onboarding activities alongside traditional new student traditions — such as orientation and Welcome Week — to ensure that, however nontraditional they may be, they still get to experience the broader traditions of the university.

“We want them to experience the big Baylor atmosphere and culture and tradition. We want them to be part of Baylor,” Davis said. “But a lot of times, they’re sometimes 25 to 55 years old coming to college, and so if we haven’t built a good on-ramp, a lot of times they just aren’t going to participate in those things.”

That “on-ramp” comes in the form of a veteran student orientation, as well as readiness workshops over the summer before classes start to help them become reacquainted with academia. The VETS program also has its own new student experience class tailored to first-year veteran students.

“The whole idea behind all of that is that we’re creating a launchpad, right?” Davis said. “We want you to find your home base so that you engage in your classroom so that you don’t just sit in the back and not talk, right? We want you to engage and share your global perspectives that you have, your profound leadership experience, the heart for service. All these things that make Baylor, Baylor, our veterans really embody, and we want them to be part of the campus.”

Wylie senior Caroline Burten — a 30-year-old health sciences major and a Marine Corps veteran — came to Baylor from a community college in North Carolina and is now the president of the student organization, Veterans of Baylor. As a nontraditional undergraduate student, Burten said the VETS program was a turning point in her experience at Baylor.

“I was unable to attend any of the transfer events or anything on campus or any tours,” Burten said. “So we showed up the week before classes started, and I knew nothing about the campus and nothing about my classes. It was awful, and I just kind of wandered around lost and asked people, ‘Do you know where the VETS center is?’ And everybody was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

After meandering a bit more, Burten found Davis and the VETS program, allowing her to get the help she needed to better navigate college life. She said the VETS program encouraged her to apply the skills she learned while serving as a Marine to her college career.

While in Afghanistan, Burten served as a linguist fluent in Farsi, Dari and Pashto — languages commonly spoken in the country. When injured Afghans came to the emergency room, she translated for them, and it was there that she found her passion for medicine.

“Most of what I was doing was from an operational side of things, but occasionally, whenever we had injured Afghans in our emergency room, I got to go translate for them,” Burten said. “And I just fell in love with the ER and fell in love with kind of being the bridge for the gap between the cultures in an environment that was otherwise kind of terrifying.”

While the military gave Burten the drive, motivation and discipline to attend classes, she said she nevertheless needed the VETS program to teach her how to better navigate the Baylor campus for the first time.

“I didn’t have the knowledge of how to do college,” Burten said. “Because I’m 30 years old, it’s been a while since I’ve been in school. And so, [Davis] and the VETS program definitely used our strengths — used the discipline that we have and the drive that we have and the ability to get up early and work hard — [and] taught us how to funnel that into organizing your classes and scheduling appropriately.”

Despite how far the VETS program has come, there are still challenges. For example, Bagby said awareness about veteran students on campus is still lacking.

“More times than several, we would have Baylor students, very well-intentioned, come up to our veterans and say, ‘What is a veteran?’” Bagby said. “They did not know what a veteran was, … so they really had no frame of reference. So we realized early on that not only did we need to provide services for our student veterans, but we needed to also help educate our student body about what it means to serve in the military.”

This semester, one of the objectives for Veterans of Baylor is to encourage veteran students to become more involved throughout campus.

“A lot of people don’t even really know we’re here,” Burten said. “They don’t know we exist. I told a student one time that I was a vet, and she [said], ‘Oh, you’re in veterinary school?’ And I [said], ‘No, I’m a veteran.’ And she [said], ‘You’ve gone to Baylor before, and you’re coming back?’ That wasn’t a dumb thing to say. It made sense. [But no,] I was in the military, and now I’m here.”

The VETS program also promotes awareness by providing training to faculty and staff on how to properly accommodate veteran students.

Davis said he encourages first-time veteran students to tune out what he calls the imposter syndrome that many struggle with when coming to Baylor for the first time. He also said that first-time veteran students should strive to get out of their comfort zone, whether that means getting involved in campus activities or being more avid participants in class.

“I would encourage anyone, but especially our vets who can be that loudest voice, you are here for a reason,” Davis said. “Baylor’s been doing this admissions thing for quite some time, and they’re not making mistakes. You’re here for a reason. You can be successful. Lean on those skills you developed in the military and before.”