On a rainy Wednesday, Yerby Hall seemed to be closed with its darkened windows. But on the basement floor, there wass bustling activity.
Student veterans of all ages walked into the building in February to meet fellow veterans at the Open House for the University of Mississippi’s first Veterans Resource Center.
“The Veterans Resource Center provides an area for veterans to have a space to study, receive support, hangout and spend time with other veterans and service members,” said Evan Ciocci, the president of Student Veterans Association and a sophomore from Sandwich, Massachusetts.
Ciocci is a 24-year-old Navy veteran who served on the U.S.S. Bainbridge homeported in Norfolk, Virginia. He remembers his service fondly, and testifies to the importance of having a community of fellow veterans.
“I joined (the Student Veterans Association) by meeting other veterans at the university,” Ciocci said. “They welcomed me here with open arms and made me feel like Mississippi was home when I knew no one. My job as the Student Veterans Association president is to ensure that student veterans receive support through resources and initiatives that will foster an environment of open communication, genuine concern and invaluable partnerships. As an organization, I’d love for us to make a positive impact not only at the University of Mississippi, but to the City of Oxford and Lafayette County.”
The organization created the Veterans Resource Center, which is currently located in the basement of Yerby Hall, to provide space for student veterans to connect, support and advocate for continuing education as well as provide student veterans with resources, such as free scantrons and Blue Books for class exams.
The room is cozy with armchairs and even a refrigerator stocked with water bottles. Eight flags adorn two walls, each representing military branches and its own story. For example, the military Special Forces donated the Blackbeard flag. At the far end of the room is a cabinet displaying military and Ole Miss décor. Displayed in the center of the cabinet is a framed picture of Gunnery Sargeant Stephen Roberts, fondly known to many Ole Miss fans as the “Ole Miss Screamin’ Marine.” There in that room, the student veterans congregate to support one another in academic success.
“The assistant director of Veteran and Military Services championed the effort to get the space for student veterans … and worked with the Student Veterans Association to see it come to fruition,” Ciocci said.
The assistant director of Veteran and Military Services at the UM Center for Student Success and First Year Experience, Andrew Newby, confirmed that when he first arrived at the University of Mississippi last August. The Veteran Resource Center was one of the first things he wanted to implement.
“We have 367.545 square feet in the Veteran and Military Services Office and have 1,355 military-connected students at Ole Miss,” Newby said. “That’s 0.271 square feet per student. During my first week on the job, after the news broke of my plans for a Veteran Resource Center and more space, I was approached about potential space in Yerby on the Grove, and I jumped on it.”
Non-traditional students, student veterans and military students all have experiences that separate them from their peers on campus. Newby said that his goal in connecting these students will create a launching pad that will add value to the veteran college experience.
“This space will serve as a tool for career ignition, and we’ve only just begun,” Newby said.
The center is a necessity, according to Newby, because for veterans, the presence of a dedicated space on campus is a sign of institutional commitment.
“By giving student veterans a place to grow, learn and connect, we are making an investment in their future and fulfilling the mission of the university,” Newby said. “Though the space is temporary and Yerby will be torn down in a few years, we have made great strides in the short time I’ve been at the university.”
Newby’s words on the importance of community rang true at the Open House as numerous student veterans packed the E.F. Yerby Conference Center. Retired University Police Chief Jeff Kellum also attended as a Green Beret Marine veteran.
One student veteran, Ken Biery, is now a law student who has enjoyed the community support from his fellow student veterans and has used the studying space at the center for his coursework.
“The law school is a great school,” Biery said. “But I was impressed that when I was accepted into the university, my first email was from the Student Veterans Association letting me know that I got in and they wanted to meet me. That (email) sealed the deal for me because I got into other schools, too. When I got that email, I thought that was pretty cool that veterans reached out to me first.”
Biery said that having a Veterans Resource Center has been a dream the association has had since he came to the university, and he’s glad to see the center open where fellow student veterans can get away from noise and distractions while befriending and supporting one another.
“It’s nice to be around people who have been in those situations, which can be stressful,” he said. “I’ve been a part of the presidency for the last three years, and I enjoyed serving as an officer with my fellow veterans. I’ve seen our group grow exponentially just because of all the great things we’ve been doing. Since Evan became our newest president, he’s been phenomenal at bringing people in and making them feel comfortable and more active in student veteran organizations on campus. I had great experiences here and enjoyed my time at Ole Miss, and that’s because of the Student Veterans Organization. That has made all the difference for me.”
Ciocci and Newby’s work is far from over. They both want a dedicated building on campus that can house Veteran and Military Services, the Veteran Resource Center and all ROTC programs in one location – especially since their new space is only temporary.
“Our goal for the Veteran Resource Center is to be an independent building on campus and to create a welcoming environment for veterans in the community,” Ciocci said. “The VRC will be where veterans and service members will receive support from the Veteran and Military Services office, services provided through the Veteran Treatment Team and advance the student veterans’ quality of life here at the university.”
By adding the two student groups – student veterans and ROTC – Newby said mentorship and partnership opportunities between students beginning their military careers and student veterans, who already have invaluable military experiences, will create an atmosphere of unlimited growth potential.
“By connecting these alumni groups, students and the community, we stand to grow in ways the university has not yet experienced,” Newby said.
Newby said the organization is always looking for ways to connect town and gown. He believes that through reaching out to community, everyone can grow together and the veterans can be a valuable asset.
“Through our combined efforts, we can make the University of Mississippi a home for veterans who are beginning their education,” Newby said. “Those who left to serve the United States deserve everything we can do for them, and providing an appropriate place for them on campus is a great way for our citizens to engage. Together, we can move to give a beautiful space that matches the outstanding potential of our student veterans. If you ever had to write your blood type on your combat boots to go to your job every day overseas, you shouldn’t have to wonder where to go on campus to find your people and find help getting your education. With this in mind, moving toward a future, a permanent building on campus will impact our students’ future, and align with the university’s mission to impact the community and our world.”
This year, those interested can support the organization by attending Ole Miss’ Military Appreciation Baseball series April 26-28 against LSU. This sporting event will celebrate veterans throughout the weekend with recognitions and festivities. There will be a raffle where one can win a football helmet with the Ole Miss logo emblazoned with the USA flag. One can donate $25 for one ticket and $50 for three tickets via go.rallyup./studentvetraffle. The drawing will be held at Veteran Resource Center at 1 p.m.
Also beginning this spring semester is the Purple Heart Recognition where the university will have a dedication of the Purple Heart Parking Space in the Circle in front of the Lyceum. Newby has worked on this project since last October and is excited to see students, faculty, staff and retirees with a Purple Heart have a dedicated space at the heart of campus. Purple Heart recipients can contact Newby, who will draft a letter to Parking and Transportation director, Mike Harris, notifying that the individual is eligible to exchange their parking pass for the Purple Heart Parking Pass, which will enable parking at any lot on campus, as long as it is not reserved or a handicapped space.
Newby added that they have begun planning for the Ole Miss Veterans Alumni Weekend on Nov. 2 and 3 this year to bring the community, student veterans and alumni together to recognize and celebrate the nation’s military service. That weekend, there will be the Veterans Alumni Gala, a black tie event with a guest of honor, scholarships for student veterans and a chance for students to meet with successful alumni and community members.
“We will honor our veterans that evening, break bread together and revel in the memory of our shared service,” Newby said.
There will be a Military Appreciation game on Saturday, Nov. 3, against South Carolina. Newby added that last year’s Military Appreciation game garnered “some amazing recognitions and initiatives that led up to the Warrior Week on campus.”
During Warrior Week, the organization highlights individual student veterans attending the university and focuses on all five branches of the military.
Safe to say, the university’s Veteran and Military Services Office is doing the most to support student veterans on campus.
“The support from the Veteran and Military Services Office is invaluable,” Ciocci said. “Through the direction and vision of Andrew Newby, we are seeing immediate and positive impacts in the university and our individual lives as veterans.”
The organization appreciates any help from the community to support and donate toward establishing a permanent building. For more information, be sure to visit vms.olemiss.edu.
The center is open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.
By Callie Daniels Bryant
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