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Home U Rising U’s Veterans Support Center gets top rating. Here’s what the center does


The University of Utah’s Veterans Support Center recently achieved designation as a military friendly school. What does that mean, for veterans and for the U? And just how does the center help student veterans succeed? Chris Nelson hosts guest Fa’a Taupa’u, director of the Veterans Support Center, to talk about serving our student veterans and their families.

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Chris Nelson: Welcome to U Rising, where we share stories about research, innovations and key initiatives taking place at the University of Utah. I'm Chris Nelson, host of this episode and chief university relations officer.

My guest today is Fa’a Taupa’u, who was named director of the U’s Veterans Support Center last November. We're going to talk about how the U supports our student veterans and our newly earned recognition as a military-friendly school. Welcome to U Rising, Fa’a.

Fa’a Taupa’u: Thank you, thank you for the invitation.

Chris Nelson: So, let's start with some background. Tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Fa’a Taupa’u: Sure. I was born in Western Samoa. I moved to Hawaii when I was very young, and I lived on the North Shore, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. And most of my time I spent going to school and then moved to Utah for schooling. It is there when I joined the military. I've been in the military now for about 25 years and most of my time has been done in active-duty service. Currently I'm in the reserve unit in Hawaii. I'm in Utah, and yes, I train in Hawaii so no one really feels bad for me when I have to do training in December in Hawaii!

         Fa’a Taupa’u

Chris Nelson: Nice. And you're a field artillery officer?

Fa’a Taupa’u: I'm a field artillery officer, yes.

Chris Nelson: Alright, for those who don't know what that might be, what does that job entail?

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, field artillery officer, we do mostly deconfliction of ground space. We use artillery units to provide support to some of our other friendly units that are out and about on the field. We also coordinate for air support if there's any requests for air support, but we support our units with the firepower, doing either lethal and non-lethal fires out there.

Chris Nelson: What attracted you to military service?

Fa’a Taupa’u: When I first started it was just to pay for schooling. Thought I would have a very short stint in the military when I first joined, but the thing that attracted me most was just the structure, the discipline. And then, you know, my two biggest things was just leadership, just thoughts of leaders when they spoke and some of the things they talked about on how to navigate certain situations. But the most important of all, I think, was just camaraderie, making friends out there and being part of just something bigger than just myself.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. And then you got into higher ed. What was that, what was that moment where you in the civilian life, you looked for a job in higher ed?

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, higher education was, I got out of active duty. As I said before, I'd done a lot of time in active duty. So, when I got out of active duty, I was looking for a job and a company down in Arizona decided for whatever good reason to hire me and I enjoyed it. It was such an awesome job. I worked at a school district, in a K-12 community, and that's what got me interested in working in education. I did two years there and then I saw there was a job opening here at the University of Utah and I applied for it. And ever since I signed up, it's been such an awesome transition from the military into the civilian world.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. So, let's talk about the support center a little bit. You’ve been here in this role since last November. But the center, of course, has been around much longer than that. When was it created and maybe just a little bit of the history and its genesis a little bit.

Fa’a Taupa’u: Sure. So, in 2011, and this is me looking at historical data here, the first director we had was Roger Perkins, who started the center, and it operated in the Union out of a small office. From there, you know, he did a lot of great things to elevate the program. You know, now we have this big space that helps to support all our veterans. The second director, Paul Morgan, took over and pushed the program forward, too, which we have new programs and on-hand staff out there. So it's been great. Before I took this position, both of them call me up and just provided support and I talked to them, you know, here and there once in a while just to check up on how the center's doing. So, it's, it's been great being here.

Chris Nelson: You’re part of a legacy. You’re only the third director really, so very early in these programs. Let's talk about the GI Bill for a second. So, the GI Bill has been instrumental in making it possible for military veterans to gain college education. So, for some of our listeners who may not be familiar with it, can you just a brief overview of the GI Bill and how it supports veterans?

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, GI Bill benefits are, you know, really helpful for our military members and their families. It's, you know, they say GI Bill pays for everything. That's totally not true. It just depends on what that service member and family qualify for. And it takes certain categories of length of time, disability, et cetera, et cetera, to help them find what they qualify for in educational benefits.

Chris Nelson: But still a really amazing program to help our military transition to higher ed.

Fa’a Taupa’u: It is, it is awesome, yeah.

Chris Nelson: How many student veterans currently attend the U?

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, for the last two years, I think we've averaged about 1,200 to 1,300. And I say military connected because that's who all qualifies for our GI bill, is our military-connected students and that involves active duty, national guard, parents, spouses, dependents and also our reservists and, of course, our veterans.

Chris Nelson: When the center was initiated “veteran” had a different connotation. You served and then you came out. But now with the reserves and National Guard there are some very active students who are doing double duty here.

Fa’a Taupa’u: There is, yes, And of the 1,300, about 70% are veterans, but the numbers are trending upwards as far as dependents. Now we see spouses, independents, looking at our GI Bill. We had almost 300 of our spouses/independents that have used GI Bill benefits. So that's a great story, just taking a look at who's using our GI bills.

Chris Nelson: Talk through some of the services that the center provides to what was your phrase? Military-connected students and their families.

Fa’a Taupa’u: Sure. So, our center has a lot of different programs as well, too. We work with the VA, so there is counseling support that's there for all our vets and anyone else who'd like to use the program. We have free tutoring, we also have refreshments. I think one of the biggest hits in our center is refreshments and also free printing. We also have a computer lab, study hall, a book loan library. And there's, you know, there's so much in my head I could name that it's a lot of just awesome benefits for all our military-connected students.

Chris Nelson: And probably just a way to connect with folks. You know, we talk a lot about affinity groups on campus and those who have military service, who have been through that training, that's a unique, unifying experience. It's probably just great for them to be able to come and just be with people who have similar shared experiences, right?

Fa’a Taupa’u: Sure. And I think you hit on the biggest thing is just that sense of belonging, that space for them to come in and to just share their stories with each other. But it ends up as a real good time just hanging out and talking. Even for me as the director, just to leave my door open and to hear, you know, some of the experiences that other veterans or military-connected students have had being in the military.

Chris Nelson: Is there a unifying story there or what's the biggest challenge these students are facing related to their veteran or affiliation status with the military?

Fa’a Taupa’u: Sure. So, taking a look, I would say it's a different world, right? Especially when they're trying to transition from their military careers into the civilian life out there. I think taking a look at just some of the data we've took a look at, we had about 66% of our students were ages of 26 to 40. So just in that group, 26 to 40 is a huge number when you have 66% of 1,300 attending a university. The top three, I would say is, the first one would be just campus integration. It's a challenge for some of our military-connected students. Some, you know, have a lost sense of purpose regarding their job and the service. Most of our members, you know, understood their roles, their responsibilities, and upon transitioning out of the military, our student veterans, you know, sometimes lose that sense of purpose and struggle to identify their direction moving forward.

Chris Nelson: Because you're coming from this environment where you're programmed to a single mission and to get things done and then explore all these amazing ideas at the university.

Fa’a Taupa’u: That is totally true. The other thing is, you know, veterans tend to have obligations outside of school rather than just a big focus on school. A lot of our veterans already have families, have other commitments, such as jobs, and some of them are still in the service out there. So that can be challenging.

Some of the other pieces I'd like to talk about is disability and mental illness. You know, some of the psychological trauma has been found to impact veterans' academic success and campus integration. The last piece is just resource awareness. And I think that's one of the biggest priorities for us is to make sure that any and all military-connected students know that there is a place, a Veterans Support Center, that can help with getting them integrated into the educational world.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. So, what's your advice to someone who's maybe coming out of active duty and they're considering whether to pursue higher education or maybe just go get a job in the field that the military prepared them for? How do you walk someone through that? What’s the advice you give to somebody who's thinking about enrolling at the University of Utah?

Fa’a Taupa’u: Take your time. Take a look at all the resources you have, figure out what's the best step for you. But also know that there is people out there that it's our job to help guide them through pursuing education, that we're here to help and give them as much resources that they need to succeed.

Chris Nelson: So, what's the advice you give to a student who's, you know, enrolled, maybe they've been here about a year and they're struggling. They're on that, they're on that bubble about, ‘Hey, maybe university's not for me. What does that conversation look like?

Fa’a Taupa’u: We'd reassess. It's the same thing we do in the military. It's just reassess and then see, kind of take a look at what may have been the challenges or the cause of maybe school’s not for them. And, you know, the good thing about being in the Veterans Support Center is that we're also tied to the VA. We're also tied to Military Affairs as well, too. So, there's outside support for them as well. So, if they're looking to maybe switch up and maybe take a break for a bit, we also have resources that they can utilize, you know, if they just want to take a break and think about it or work. We have those resources to help support.

Chris Nelson: Yeah. And some good news. One of the reasons we wanted to focus on this is that the U recently was recognized as a military friendly school. So, tell me about that. What does that mean? Why is it significant? What does it mean for our students and what does it mean for the reputation of the U?

Fa’a Taupa’u: Right. So, we were just awarded the military friendly award by, which is a big organization that takes a look and rates and ranks colleges according to some of the criteria.

We're very fortunate enough to be in the Tier 1 category for gold status, and we were probably one of nine colleges in that category, Research 1 institution is the category we were in. It means a lot for us just trying to support one of our priorities, which is to build awareness not just on campus, but outside of campus and out-of-state, too, to let everyone know that, you know, we have a lot of programs here to help students succeed in their academic goals.

Chris Nelson: Okay. So, we've talked about some of the challenges veterans face, but they also bring strength to classrooms. So, talk about that a little bit.

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, service members and student veterans bring valuable experiences and insights to college and university environments. Our student veterans can enhance classroom discussions with their unique background knowledge and perspectives developed through their military and cross-cultural experiences.

The military student population also is very diverse. We also have high diversity in terms of age, physical ability, family status and educational level. Many of our student veterans also hold technical skills that can be applied across all sectors, which can increase innovation on campus and in the working world as well.

Chris Nelson: What else do you want listeners to know about the center or veterans or just what folks need to know about, you know, what your work is, what your work is doing on the university campus.

Fa’a Taupa’u: And let me add to that. We also have built a student-led organization as well, which is Military Students at the U, which is open to people who would also like to volunteer to be part of that group. You don't need to be part of the military, but I think it's part of us sharing our culture throughout the school so that everyone can kind of participate and learn more about what it is to be military connected here on campus.

Chris Nelson: Military connected. That's the phrase we've learned today. I like it. Military connected. Alright, the basics. Where can people learn more? How do they access this? They're on campus already or they're considering going to campus. How do they reach out to you?

Fa’a Taupa’u: So, they can reach out to us, we have our website. It is and we have, you know, we're currently in construction to make our website more, add more information and more user friendly. So, we do have lots of information. And so you can take a look at our website and see what we have now for more information. We're also located at the Union, on the fourth floor of the Union, Room 418 as well.

Chris Nelson: So, Fa’a, thank you so much for being my guest today on U Rising. We're grateful for your service and that of our military-connected students.

Fa’a Taupa’u: Thanks, Chris. And thank you so much for the opportunity.

Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I hope you'll tune in next time when my co-host Julie Kiefer will be talking with Tommaso Lenzi about the Utah Bionic leg. I'm Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.