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Penn State Office Of Veterans Programs Uplifts Military-Affiliated Students On Campus

With just under 4,000 military-affiliated students across Commonwealth Campuses and 800 individuals at University Park alone, Penn State has a long-held tradition of supporting student veterans. Through the Office of Veterans Programs and Office of Veterans Affairs and Services, the university established the Student Veteran Center in November 2019, a complete renovation of previous programs and tangible commitment to military men and women year-round. 

Just in time for Veterans Day, the university office also celebrates another expansion: a $1 million anonymous donation to create and sustain a career counselor position exclusively for student veterans.

“Back in 2013, our director at the time said ‘If money were no object, what would you want to see?’” Renée Thornton-Roop said. “…Then, Dr. Barron said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’” 

Starting in the office in 2010, Air Force Veteran Renée Thornton-Roop now serves as senior director for the Office of Veterans Programs, a division of Penn State guided by clear values and purpose.

“We are here for the successful transition and completion of higher education for our veterans,” Thornton-Roop said. “We want them to come here, adapt, have a wonderful college experience, and then be able to move onto meaningful careers post-military.” 

As part of the original brainstorming team just under nine years ago, Thornton-Roop first imagined a proposal called the Veteran’s Gateway, a safe space to aid military-affiliated Penn Staters as they make the distinct lifestyle switch to student life. 

Advocating for increased student veteran support, Thornton-Roop and the Office of Veterans Programs eventually saw their vision come to life right in the Ritenour Building. From study rooms to lounges with lockers for commuting students, no detail is missed, and the main entrance is also designed with a ramp to signal accessibility for all. 

“We wanted to make sure that that was visible, and that we are here for everyone,” she said. “We just want to make sure that we are welcoming and providing what folks need in order to have their best experience.” 

As senior director of the Office of Veteran Affairs and Services, Eugene McFeely gathered generous funding from donors and support services expanded exponentially, culminating in the proposal turned reality enjoyed today. 

“That was the creation of this dream we had for so long,” Thornton-Roop said. 

In addition to providing a physical safe space, donations also allowed for the expansion of educational resources to ensure mental safety. Designed with intention to accommodate the unique needs of student veterans, programming includes peer mentorship and cradle-to-grave services in both seeing and taking care of the whole person. 

“Right from their application, we are working with the student,” Thornton-Roop said. “Every incoming new student veteran is assigned a student sponsor or peer mentor, and that provides them an automatic sense of community and connection.”

Building upon the mentorship program, the renovation also includes a first-year veteran’s seminar for students entitled “Transition Is The Mission,” an introductory, three-credit course offered in collaboration with the College of Education.

“That class is specifically addressing the whole military-civilian gap,” Thorntop-Roop said. “We discuss veteran’s benefits, disability benefits, and VA healthcare as well as advising, financial literacy, and student affairs.”

While providing educational knowledge, the seminar also explores themes of transition and identity and advocacy for individualism. In one momentous assignment, students are encouraged to express themselves artistically, which quickly became one of Thornton-Roop’s favorite activities. 

Here, she shared her favorite memory with the center: the life-changing experience of one U.S. Marine veteran as he completed the artistic assignment.

“We encourage our veterans to get outside of their comfort zone and do sculpting or painting,” she said. “You could tell he was just kind of like, ‘Oh jeez, I really don’t want to do this.’”

Yet after discussions in class, the student veteran turned in his completed project at the end of the course — a detailed, abstract piece symbolizing his story of service. 

“He was so taken aback by how therapeutic it was that he actually changed his major,” Thornton-Roop said. “He graduated with his degree in Ceramics.”

Grateful for her part in passion discovered, Thornton-Roop explained just how much this means to the community of the Student Veteran Center. 

“To be able to facilitate that type of meaningful transition for someone and help them find their worth and their value, especially after some people have experienced a lot of struggle…is truly amazing,” she said.

In moments like these, the impact of the Student Veteran Center is clearly felt, grand by nature but personalized for the success of the individual. Another aspect of action, the Office of Veteran Programs also has a support animal on site to enhance comfortability and open communication. 

Part of Susquehanna Service Dogs, the Center hosts Podrick, a loyal companion trained in greeting behaviors and commands such as “lap,” or “pressure,” to help veterans decompress and discuss their experience. 

“He’s just an incredible asset to have here,” Thornton-Roop said. “He has opened a lot of doors for communication and for those who are maybe a little reluctant to talk or engage.”

Sitting patiently at the feet of veterans, Podrick also brings military-affiliated students together as a natural conversation starter.

“I’ve seen a lot of friendships created and community built just because he’s around,” she said. “He has just been worth his weight in gold.” 

Serviceman’s best friend, Podrick is also the key attendee in community events such as Pizza with Podrick, a bi-weekly social for student veterans at the center with a special edition of the event held today.

Supporting student veterans deeply in every way possible, the center celebrates their upcoming expansion and looks forward to assisting student veterans one step further on their post-graduation journey through career counseling. 

“We really see the benefit of being able to have someone who can translate that military service into civilian vernacular and really make both those academic and military experiences shine to find meaningful employment,” Thornton-Roop said. 

Ecstatic to uplift student veterans through all phases of life, the Office of Veterans Programs has no plans of slowing down their efforts supporting military-affiliated Penn Staters year-round.

“We are excited to be here,” Thornton-Roop said. “We are all just really passionate about what we do.”

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a junior majoring in marketing and psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 18-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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