WU seeks VA certification reform

Ryan Thompson

Eric Grospitch, vice-president of Student Life, and Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, director of University Diversity and Inclusion, made a commitment to better serve student veterans after a month-long delay in Veterans Affairs benefits.

Veterans go through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to apply for financial aid benefits from the Veterns Affairs. Veterans prove to the school they are eligible for benefits and shows the VA they are enrolled in classes. VA benefits fall under several different chapters, each with its own process and awards. Under Chapter 33, for example, the VA covers tuition costs and pays the veteran $1100 a month if enrolled full-time.

John Hart, senior history major, who is eligible for Chapter 33 benefits, realized there was an issue when he received a bill from the university at the beginning of the semester.

“Normally, the VA kicks in and pays [tuition] before I even get a bill,” Hart said. “I went into the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and I spoke with the student workers there and they said that they had pulled files, but that nobody, zero people, had been certified.”

There are 198 students who get benefits from the VA, according to Grospitch. Both Grospitch and Hart say the certification process takes about an hour and at the beginning of the semester, there was only one certifying official who had to process each student manually.

This official lost two weeks to illness which significantly delayed the certification process, as the university had no contingencies in place.

Students relying on these benefits were unaware of the situation and were still seeking answers and solutions to the problems into early February.

“We were working with some folks, but again, there wasn’t a solid communication, so the veterans were agitated by this whole situation and it was getting worse,” Hart said. “There were a lot of folks that were involved and we still felt like we weren’t getting the resolution that we needed.”

It was not until Feb. 10 that the university certified all students with correct and complete paperwork.

Grospitch and Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, director of University Diversity and Inclusion, met with a group of student veterans Feb. 13 to address the issue and discuss ways to improve the process going forward.

Grospitch, Swopes and Hart believe they are more or less on the same page after this meeting and all three seem to be in agreement on what the main problems are.

Grospitch expressed his commitment to improving the situation for veterans.

“We want to figure out how we can better serve this population, because we want to grow this population,” Grospitch said. “These are folks that, if you look at the research, are more likely to be academically

successful they also bring lot of great leadership to campus from an engagement standpoint, because, as a number of them pointed out, this is their job. They’re getting the benefits to be here, so they have time to engage.”

Swopes agrees with this sentiment.

“They bring a great deal of diversity to our campus, so they’re important academically and socially,” Swopes said. “We should do our best to serve them.”

The university’s first step was to train Swopes and another staff member in VA certification, so the entire workload no longer falls to one person.

“Now we’ve got the good feet on the ground to to do the head count and get that through, but we’ve got to improve the process,” Grospitch said. “It pulls information from our Registrar’s Office. We have to have information from the Business Office for tuition and fees and then Financial Aid to make sure we’re not over-rewarding somebody their cost of attendance. Each of those processes were separate. We got to have this as [one] process.”

Swopes wants to gather more information on the different chapters of benefits, such as what each requires and what restrictions there may be.

“We make fewer mistakes if we have a better understanding of what we need to do for each one,” Swopes said.

The other major issue all parties identified as a problem is communication.

“There’s not a real clear communication with a veteran as an incoming student as to what he or she needs to do to in order to start this process,” Hart said.

Providing students with a receipt of what they have turned in and alerting individual students of any other paperwork they need to turn in depending on their chapter of benefits is one possibility Grospitch is considering as a way to improve communication.

Grospitch also wants Washburn’s website to have a page including all of the protocol information veterans need, as well as information on resources and activities available to veterans on campus, such as the Military-Student Success Center, located in Mabee Library.

Swopes suggests providing the relevant information to other student resources, such as Student One Stop, so student veterans can get reliable communication from more than one source.

The university also needs to improve direct communication with individual students, according to Hart.

“I think Dr. Grospitch hit it right on the head when he said there was a communication issue and I think that communication issue is both internal and external,” Hart said. “For instance, if I make a phone call, very rarely do I get somebody on the phone, so naturally you would think email might be the better way to go. I have emails that I have sent out to that office, both to the certifying official and to other folks, and they’ve gone unanswered.”

In spite of these issues, Hart is optimistic going forward.

“Everybody knows where the problems are and I think they’re going to be fixed,” Hart said. “At least as of right now, I’m very confident and very hopeful that communication lines will stay open, so that we don’t have anything like this happen again.”