How a group of former students made the campus a better place for veterans
Daryl Thomas turned around admiring the room at the corner of the new student union. Seeing the living room, kitchenette, and several veteran students studying at a table, a large smile grew across the 2012 graduate’s face. It was the first time he had seen the Veterans Center in the new Student Union, a cause he continually pushed for as a UWL student.
“I worked hard to get this thing,” he said, nodding his head.
In fact, Thomas and UWL alum Reece Rykal,’13, are in a framed photo near the door to the center. They worked to help the group obtain national affiliation with the Student Veterans of America in 2009, and evolved the UWL Student Veterans Association into what it is today.
Thomas, Rykal and several other alumni — including Robert and Kathy Thoen — are responsible for helping establish a lot of the dedicated services UWL student veterans enjoy today, says Dr. Carol Oyster, retired UWL professor and advisor to Student Veterans Association from 2009-2014. That list includes creating a veteran-specific student orientation in 2010 and advocating for the hiring of a campus veterans certifying official dedicated solely to student veterans.
Thomas and Kathy, who was the campus veterans certifying official when Thomas was a student, pushed for a space for veterans to get together in Cartwright Center. In 2012, veterans were given a former computer lab that was converted into a veterans center.
When plans for the new student union were in the works, Thomas and other veterans on the Student Senate pushed for a space specifically for veterans in The U. Robert, ’15, who became SVA president, continued those efforts and was instrumental in the SVA even before he became a UWL student.
At the time, many deployments were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan wars. UWL had hundreds of student veterans trying to figure out how to transition from combat zones and navigate college. Many were non-traditional students who didn’t feel comfortable initially joining fraternities and other social groups, says Robert.
“It gave veterans a safe space to not have to worry about offending anyone — a space to vent and share things like how to navigate the VA, which would be kind of like a foreign language to other parts of campus,” he explains.
Robert, a marine corps veteran, remembers coming to UWL knowing he had GI Bill benefits, but not knowing how they worked. Being around other veterans through the Student Veterans Association and in the veterans space in Cartwright, he was able to learn from others — both their success and mistakes.
He is now a veteran’s service officer for Houston County, helping veterans navigate some of those same issues he struggled with as a UWL student.
Thomas, a Navy Veteran, is now a logistics officer with the U.S. Air Force based in Tokyo, Japan. Despite the distance, he has been following the new Student Union plans on Facebook over the years. When he returned to the area to visit family, he decided to wrap a UWL Student Union tour into his visit.
Thomas says a space for veterans was important when he was a student, and he’s excited to see the new space is even better than what they had in Cartwright.
“We are all excited to see the changes,” says Thomas. “What we started, pushed for and advocated for became a reality. It looks amazing.”