STARKVILLE, Miss.–The eight people staffing Mississippi State’s G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans may seem a small number, but they assist student veterans, service members, dependents and survivors in a big way.
Currently, they serve more than 2,000 VSDS clients at the university from the center’s offices at 126 Magruder St. on the south side of campus.
Year after year, MSU is listed among the top military-friendly institutions in the nation, said center director Ken McRae, a retired Army officer.
“Our philosophy is, ‘Whatever it takes,'” McRae said. “It doesn’t matter what it is; we’re going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
The six full-time staff members, along with two graduate students completing counseling education practicums, agreed they work together like a family.
“If we have a person walk in fresh off the street and who’s never gotten benefits before, anybody in the office can help them,” said Melanie Owens, veterans benefits program coordinator. “We all know the steps, the paperwork and the processes that students need to get their benefits started.”
The support VSDS students receive from the center, from recruitment to graduation, is greatly appreciated, according to two students receiving benefits.
Senior Corey L. Turner, of Caledonia, has been with the Mississippi National Guard for more than three years. A business administration/management major, Turner said he repeatedly relies on the center’s services.
“They give selfless service,” Turner said. “They don’t expect anything in return when they take their own time to help people. They always go that extra mile, giving us reminders about dates paperwork is due, scholarship opportunities and job opportunities.”
Junior Teresa Allen, of Columbus, is a biological sciences/pre-medicine major serving in the National Guard. She said the center’s reminder e-mails helped her maintain service benefits, and she appreciates the outreach initiatives the center offers.
“They’re so friendly and open. They take care of business and interact with the people. It’s a good way to introduce vets to campus,” she said.
Associate director Ronnie White, another military veteran, oversees the center’s day-to-day operations. He echoed McRae’s opinion that the entire staff has a “whatever it takes” attitude.
“Whatever it takes for us to make sure that students have all their needs met — if that’s talking to them every day about their issues or if that’s picking them up because their car broke down and bringing them to class, that’s what we’re going to do,” White said. “We’re a military-friendly university, and our main focus is to help these students at Mississippi State.”
While Eddie Scales primarily recruits new clients, the veterans outreach coordinator said maintaining personal relationships with the VSDS population being served at MSU and helping them successfully transition to university life are among his most important responsibilities.
“I’ve got the ability to talk to people and to convince them that, for the military, Mississippi State is the best way,” Scales said. “It’s pretty easy to explain how awesome the university is, but I also do outreach, talking to service members, dependents and families, and advocating for them and assisting in their transition.”
Among the most challenging aspects for the VSDS population at MSU, or any other postsecondary institution, is the required federal paperwork. Scales often compiles the initial packet of papers, which he then passes on to Owens and Brittany Howard, veterans benefits program counselor.
Owens and Wilson maintain the paperwork and documentation required for each student certified to receive benefits. Whenever a class schedule changes, for example, they must complete a new certification for the student. Also, they must be prepared for audits by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which annually critiques record-keeping procedures.
“We know the steps, the process and the benefits, but the paperwork changes all the time,” Owens said. “We have to make sure that we keep up with all the changes, and we’re committed to best practices.”
This semester, graduate students Kathleen E. “Kate” Kalata, of Osceola, Wisc., and Slovakian native Radka Ferancova, are completing their practicum requirements at the center. Both are pursuing master’s degrees — Katala in counselor education and Ferancova in rehabilitation counseling education. Like the full-time staff members, they said they are passionate about connecting VSDS students with the resources they need.
“The center’s going to help these students through the process of the college career,” White said. “No matter what they need, we’re here to help them get a college education and graduate.”