By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — Tara Nolan was a first-semester freshman at Salem State University when she found out she was being deployed to Iraq.
Although it was past the deadline to withdraw from classes, the school worked to ensure Nolan, an Air Force reservist, wouldn’t receive a failing grade.
That’s just one of the many ways Nolan and her classmates say Salem State is building a reputation as veteran-friendly. The university has introduced a wealth of veterans programming and services on campus as veterans enrollment has risen steadily in recent years.
“Before that, you would never know who was a veteran (on campus),” Nolan said. “We (veterans) are kind of like a family now. We hang out off campus, do activities together.”
Seventy-five veterans will graduate from SSU this month, which is more than double the number of veterans in the Class of 2012. The college anticipates graduating roughly 1,850 graduate and undergraduate students this year.
Last week, SSU held a ceremony to award each veteran a stole to wear at graduation and a citation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.
And the university has reached out to veterans in other ways as well, including through offering information and counseling at events such as the “Operation Commitment to our Troops” event held April 13 at Gloucester High School’s Benjamin A. Smith Field House.
Salem State is “ahead of its time” in its support of veterans — from pairing veterans with upperclassmen mentors to allowing veterans to enroll in classes early to jump-start the complicated process of tuition reimbursement through the GI Bill, said Philip Lippens, a 35-year-old Army veteran who will graduate with a psychology major this month.
Nolan, 24, said SSU professors and staff have been more than accommodating, allowing her to do makeup work or take exams early or later than her classmates as she’s had to leave for days or weeks at a time for training and military commitments during her time at SSU.
“I can’t say I’ve ever had a professor really give me a hard time,” said Nolan.
With deployments to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Nolan took six years to finish a psychology major and biology minor at SSU.
Lippens, who served six years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including a 16-month deployment to Iraq, credited Sam Ohannesian, SSU’s director of enrollment services and veterans affairs, with coaching him through the process of enrolling through the GI Bill and adjusting to becoming a student again.
“The thing that brought me to Salem (State), to their credit, was the response I got from Sam,” Lippens said. “... Salem (State)’s implementing programs, support systems and programs that other schools don’t have yet ... I’ve got friends at other schools, they don’t even know who their veterans’ representatives are.”
The campus has a growing student veterans organization, and Ohannesian’s office also organizes resume workshops, networking and social opportunities for veterans.
SSU has created a program for veterans to take a series of courses together in their first year — a way to meet other veterans and ease the transition into higher education, said Ohannesian.
“It’s geared toward our experiences, and other things that civilians might not quite understand,” said Nolan. “It’s a space for us to put all our ideas out and have someone understand.”
It can be jarring to return from combat and find yourself sitting in a college classroom of 18- and 19-year-olds straight out of high school, said Ohannesian.
“We’re here when they (veterans) need us, no matter how much or how little,” Ohannesian said.
Ohannesian said SSU’s rise in veterans enrollment is due to a number of factors, one of which is the college’s increased veterans programming. Across the U.S., more veterans are enrolling in college because of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and troops are returning home from Afghanistan, said Ohannesian.
“What we’re doing is being passed on via word of mouth (by people) who feel Salem State has a great reputation as a veteran- and military-friendly institution,” he said. “... It’s important for us to make our campus community aware that ‘yes, we do have veterans,’” said Ohannesian.