How UF helps military veterans succeed as they pursue an education

UF PhD student Savanna Turner smiles as she poses for a photo in her US Coast Guard uniform.

Savanna Turner is an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, a doctoral student who is studying agricultural education and communication, and she also is the president of UF's Collegiate Veterans Society.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Thanks to the GI Bill, thousands of military veterans have been able to pursue an education at the University of Florida. It is just one way the nation and UF shows gratitude for our military veterans’ service. And it also helps to broaden the experience for non-veteran students. In this episode of From Florida, Roselind Brown of the Collegiate Veterans Success Center highlights UF’s history of working with veterans, while Savanna Turner, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, talks about the opportunities and challenges veterans face on a college campus. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Emily Cardinali and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

For more episodes of From Florida, click here.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Thursday is Veteran's Day, a day set aside to honor those who served our country in the United States Armed Forces. Our gratitude for our military veterans is deep and abiding. One way our nation has worked to show that appreciation is through educational support.

Today, we're going to hear from two people at the center of UF's efforts to make military veterans feel welcome and help them succeed. Savanna Turner is a student veteran at UF, but to get us started, I'd like to introduce Roselind Brown, who is assistant director of care in the Collegiate Veterans Success Center. Roselind, thank you so much for joining us today.

Roselind Brown: Hi, Nicci. Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first of all and your career with UF and the Collegiate Veterans Success Center? I believe this is a fairly new role for you.

Roselind Brown: Yes, you are correct. So, I have actually worked with the university for about two years, but I've just transitioned into this role about a month and a half ago. So, brand new into the Dean of Students Office, which is where we're housed, and into the center as well. But very excited to be a part of the team.

Nicci Brown: So, could you share with us a little bit of a brief history of veteran services at UF?

Roselind Brown: Yes. So, UF actually has a really long history of military service, veteran services, and then also military training. As a land grant university, it was actually a part of the act that created the land grant to have military curriculum a part of the university. So we have a long-standing military history. Additionally, with that we were one of the inaugural units for the ROTC. So again, really strong military training. And jumping forward many decades, we also really had a strong presence within World War II. It actually had a very significant impact on our university with our students as well as faculty and staff joining the service during those years.

A lot of our student housing was actually created as barracks to house all of those students coming back to campus. One in particular would be the Corry Village, which was named after William Corry, who was one of the two student body presidents who unfortunately did pass away during World War II. Flavet Village was created to help when we had our soldiers come back during World War II. It was initially created with travel trailers and then was made into that permanent housing facility, just to house the many students that came back during World War II. Additionally, we have had members serve in Korea, Vietnam and every single conflict since.

Nicci Brown: So, obviously, we have a very rich history of veterans and involvement with the military here at the university. Can you tell us how many veterans we currently have attending UF?

Roselind Brown: Sure. So, we are able to track our veteran students in a variety of different ways and that includes our students that are utilizing military benefits. So at this time we have 947 students that are actively using their educational benefits. That does include, though, active duty as well as dependents of veterans. Overall, though, we have a strong estimate of about 2,100 students that identify with the military community who might not be using benefits, but are still either active duty, spouses of a military member or a dependent.

Nicci Brown: And I would imagine that runs across all levels of the university. So, everywhere from first-year students right through to doctoral students.

Roselind Brown: Exactly. And also within our professional students as well, too.

Nicci Brown: Terrific. So, one of the things, too, in terms of how we are recognized across the nation, U.S. News & World Report ranks UF as the 10th best college for veterans in the country. So we are well known. What kinds of services and support does the Collegiate Veterans Success Center provide for all of these students that are here?

Roselind Brown: Yeah. So, the Collegiate Veterans Success Center, it was actually created out of concern for our veteran students, wanting to really create a space where they were able to feel supported, could relax, study and really have a space to build a community with others that were within the military community or military-affiliated. So, a lot of our services are around social connection and support and transition into such a large university as University of Florida is. We have a wonderful lounge for them to come, just relax, hang out, chat. We have a study space where they can come in and bring groups as well as a computer lab and free printing.

But we also partner with the VA and we have a Vet Success on-campus counselor, who works with us 20 hours a week, as well as with Santa Fe, so she understands a lot of the transfer requirements, which a lot of our veteran students are a part of the transfer classes as well. So, she's great with handling questions about VA benefits, academic advising, career counseling and really also the transition to UF as well.

Nicci Brown: I would imagine that sense of camaraderie or connection is something that's very important to veterans.

Roselind Brown: Yes. Very, very, very much so. It allows them to really just speak with someone who understands, even if they're from a different branch, from reserves, active duty. They really have kind of a common language and being able to have someone to talk to that understands that language.

Nicci Brown: Well, Roselind, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you, also, for the work that you're doing. It's greatly appreciated.

Roselind Brown: Thank you. It's been great speaking with you today.

Nicci Brown: Now, it's my pleasure to introduce listeners to Savanna Turner. Savanna is an officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, who earlier this year was named Veteran of the Month by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She is a doctoral student who is studying agricultural education and she also is the president of UF's Collegiate Veterans Society. Welcome, Savanna, and thank you for your service!

Savanna Turner: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: So, tell us a little bit more about yourself. What drew you to the Armed Services in the first place?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I come from a family that has a lot of people in the military, who have served in some capacity. And so when I was an undergrad at UF, I was curious about that pathway and kind of seeing what that might be like. At the time, I was in the Department of Agricultural Education and so my career route looked like I was going to be an agricultural teacher at a K-12 school and I felt like I was way too young to teach kids. So, I was looking around and kind of decided that the United States Coast Guard was the way for me. I was really interested in, at the time, marine life, which I did not do anything related to marine life so far in the Coast Guard.

But that was kind of something I wanted to do and be able to serve my country and do it in a capacity that was of interest to me and ended up starting to become a passion of mine, and now I'm at 10 years and counting in. So that's kind of family in the military and then just kind of wanted to do something a little bit outside of my comfort zone and be able to travel and do different things because I grew up close to Gainesville, about an hour and a half south, and that was about the most I've had with experience in the world at the time. And so I wanted to do stuff bigger than myself, but also get my opportunity to travel.

Nicci Brown: And was anything surprising to you when you did join the military?

Savanna Turner: Not really. I watched a lot of YouTubes on basic training and what that would be like and talked to my recruiter and prepared, to the best of my ability. I mean, I think that when you go through training there's things you can't prepare for, but it was about what I expected and it was very interesting going in and being active duty and everything.

Nicci Brown: So, can you tell us a little bit more about what you did when you were with the Coast Guard?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, my first unit, I came out of basic training as an E3 and I was stationed on a ship. It was actually a sailboat, it's a big, tall ship, and the purpose was to do PR in different countries and around the United States.

Nicci Brown: By PR, you mean public relations?

Savanna Turner: Yeah, sorry. Public relations. So, we went around and were in different ports around the world. And so it was kind of like, I guess, an ambassador of the United States. And we also trained the Coast Guard Academy cadets, which are similar to ROTC but there's an academy, so like West Point if anyone's familiar with that. So, we trained them in seaworthiness. That ship went to Saint-Pierre, France, which is past Nova Scotia, and then I went all the way down to Aruba, lots of places along the way.

And then after that, I went to training to become a marine science technician. I got stationed in New Orleans after that and that job entailed a lot of pollution response, hazardous material response when it becomes waterways, waterfront facilities that manage hazardous materials over waterways and then foreign freight. So foreign cargo ships that come through, we do safety, environmental and security laws and regulations. So, we have to make sure that they maintain all of those international and U.S. laws. So, I was a marine science technician for the majority of my enlisted career and then I switched to the reserve, did the same job in Savannah. Yeah, Savanna in Savannah, I know! Savannah, Georgia, I got that a lot! And then after that I became a commissioned officer in the same field, just as an officer and my current assignment is in Port Canaveral or Cape Canaveral.

Nicci Brown: Wow. You've really clocked some miles. Or nautical miles, I guess. So how do you feel that that experience has really directly impacted you as you study and with your studies?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I've always really been interested in the way that people are, like the way w e— why do we pick certain behaviors? Why do we do certain things? And so, I originally said I went into the Coast Guard because I wanted to do marine life stuff, which I didn't end up doing, but a lot of laws and regulations are meant to protect the environment. And so, with the experience as an undergrad, I definitely was very interested in environmental protection, environmental education. And that sort of led me into my doctoral degree, which is in agricultural education and communications, more specifically looking at public outreach in relation to sustainability.

So, looking at how we can become better as people to help save the planet, is basically — that experience in the military added to the idea I already had. My dad likes to tell a story that when I was four about how I told one of his friends he needed to recycle some plastic he had in his hand. So that's kind of been part of who I am, but I think that the military sort of helped me see how people live throughout the world firsthand, to understand it a little bit better. And that helped inform my master's degree in sustainability, which led me here as a doctoral student.

Nicci Brown: And I guess a lot of that draws upon your PR experience as well?

Savanna Turner: Yes. So, you mean PR, like public relations?

Nicci Brown: I do. You got me.

Savanna Turner: Yes. Yeah. So, working a lot with the public, I mean, in the military, that first unit I talked about being on a ship, it was an ambassador of the United States. So, I talked to a lot of people, especially the cadets that were on board that we were training. We also had prior enlisted that would come on and learn how to be an officer on board. So, I had a lot of interface with a lot of different people from different cultures, different areas of the world. And so, that kind of inspired me in a way to say, ‘I'm on the right path. I really want to pursue a Ph.D., to be able to learn about all these social science theories and why we do what we do and how to be able to help people change behaviors that are going to be more sustainable and more environmentally conscious.’

Nicci Brown: So, you were on active duty for five years. Was it difficult to transition to the reserve?

Savanna Turner: Yes, surprisingly so. So I was active duty for five years and when I transitioned to the reserve, I was definitely still in the active-duty mindset of go, go, go all the time, I’ve got to do all this stuff. And the reserve is — a commitment is one weekend a month, two weeks out of the year. You're still able to do a lot of the same job responsibilities. That's the fortunate thing about the Coast Guard, is we're always actually doing the mission. And so, I was able to still maintain the same level of qualifications and be able to go out and do inspections and things like that even as a reserve.

But I think that getting out of the active-duty mindset and switching into a more, I guess, less time-consuming role and still being able to maintain a civilian life and be able to get a civilian job and then battle that with doing the one weekend a month was very challenging in the beginning. And it was kind of challenging transitioning mentally out of that active-duty mindset. Not bad, but just different. You kind of — it’s sort of like losing a family, in a way, and it was kind of — some people equate it to a divorce. I was only in for five years, so I don't think it quite felt like what maybe a divorce would feel like, but it was still a very big transitional step.

Nicci Brown: For sure. So, what were some of the things that you did to help you transition, to move along?

Savanna Turner: So, I have a very unique thing that I did. A lot of people told me, "Find a project, keep yourself busy" because a lot of times you'll save up your vacation time and you'll use it at the end of your contract. So, you're still technically in, but you're on vacation at the end. And I had, oh gosh, like 50 days, I think. And so, I was looking for a job. I hadn't got a job yet in the civilian world. And I moved back in with my parents for a few months because I didn't know where I was going to live. I wasn't going to commit to anything. And so, I decided that I wanted to live in an RV full time.

So, I bought my grandparents' travel trailer and I ended up renovating it. So, I had wood floors. I painted, I ripped out all the furniture. So that actually really helped me be able to transition because I had a purpose every morning. Because that's one thing that's really difficult is that loss of sense of purpose. And then it kept me up and moving and something that was active with my hands. So, it helped me transition out of that. And so that was a really big project that I was working on, in addition to yoga and trying to reflect and understand that it's okay I'm making this transition. I will have a new purpose in life, that's fine. But that was, yeah. I lived in that RV for three years. So, I lived in an RV!

Nicci Brown: Wow.

Savanna Turner: But, yes. It was an awesome project. I had a great time.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. I hear about people being really passionate about that lifestyle, but also very innovative in terms of rehabbing those RVs.

Savanna Turner: Yeah. It was a lot of fun.

Nicci Brown: And what about your move back to the classroom? And, obviously, UF isn't new to you because you earned your undergraduate degree here. But now that you're a veteran, how do you see things differently in the classroom?

Savanna Turner: So, I started fall 2019, right before COVID, so I had one regular fall semester. And it was very similar, but it was different. So, obviously, I'm familiar with campus. I was here as an undergrad. And this town, it's changed a lot in the eight years, I think it was, that I had not been here. But I think that, at first it was difficult because I didn't know how to connect with other graduate students because my life experience is so vastly different. And I'm older than most people and so that was kind of a challenge. How do I communicate with them without sounding like I'm just boasting about my experience? And so, I was kind of quiet and reserved at first, which is definitely against my personality. I'm usually very talkative and doing different things.

And so that was kind of a little bit uneasy in the beginning. But I'm very fortunate. I'm in a really great department and it feels like a family since I went there as an undergrad. A lot of the same professors are there, and we have a really great graduate student structure.

But as far as my internal struggles, it was still hard to really be able to connect with people in general. I think that that's kind of a challenge. But then I happened to find the Collegiate Veterans Society during that semester and that really helped me to feel that sense of belonging. I still get along great with all my graduate student friends but having another set of students who understand my past and my history and have similar experiences has been really helpful to find that sense of belonging.

Nicci Brown: For sure. So, you're now the president of the society. Can you tell us a little bit more about the group, and what your role entails?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, the Collegiate Veterans Society is a student-led organization. We're under student government. We're also part of the Student Veterans of America, which is a national organization. And so, our organization exists to create that sense of community among student veterans — active duty, reservists, dependents, military-affiliated students, even anyone who might be interested in the military. We want to create a sense of community and a place that people feel safe and inclusive and they feel like they belong somewhere. Because I think that sometimes we tend to think more like, ‘I can do this on my own, I'm self-sufficient’ because that's how we've been trained to think and that's a lot of times the position we've been put in. So, I think it's great that we have this organization to create that sense of you can stop in whenever you want, you can hang out with us. You don't have to, but we're here for resources and whatever you need. That kind of helped me and so I wanted to be able to be put in a position where I can help others as well.

Nicci Brown: And you started UF's first peer-to-peer student veteran mentorship program. Can you tell us more about that?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, this semester it's kind of on pause. I think when we all went to in-person, everyone's super overwhelmed and everyone's still trying to get their bearings, but we will start that back up, hopefully, in spring. I've been partnering with the Veterans Success Center here on campus to help get that up and running. And so, I kind of got that idea from my department, actually. We have a pairing process that we do with new graduate students and then more seasoned graduate students to help people coming from all over the country, even just coming to Gainesville, maybe they already lived in Florida, to acclimate to being able to be at the university. And so I kind of modeled it after that, same similar design as that. Student veterans that have been here a little while connect with new student veterans to kind of help get their bearings — if they need to be connected with the right person, with their VA benefits, if they need just someone to support them, someone to talk to, professional development opportunities.

So, I wanted to make sure that we had that opportunity and I kind of modeled it after some other universities. I just kind of did a quick search and kind of saw what other universities were doing and realized that UF didn't have that peer-to-peer opportunity. And so, I kind of used the department's modeling. And then I have always really enjoyed mentorship. So I kind of used some of the things that I've used in the past or that I've come across that I thought might be helpful, because I think that being a mentee is just as important as being a good mentor. And so I wanted to create a sense of a workshop so we can all get together and learn together about how to create actionable plans on what that relationship would look like. I think that it's a little bit harder right now, but I think in spring we'll definitely be able to ramp it back up and be able to have that opportunity for student veterans.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. So, you've mentioned some of them, but what are some other challenges that veterans face when they take on university studies?

Savanna Turner: I think that . . . I've thought about this question because everyone has a unique experience in the military. You have people who have served combat roles, people who have been stationed in other countries, people had good experiences and bad ones, just like anything else. And so, I can't really tell you what exactly everybody has to go through because everyone has a unique sense of their life. But I do think that some of the other things that student veterans have are, we usually have more refined or polished skills in the sense of leadership or team building or maybe time management or meeting deadlines, and self-discipline.

So, I think we bring a lot of those skills to the table when we come here. So, I think that it helps to our success, but only if we're put into a supportive environment that allows us to be able to utilize those. And I think that sometimes we like to hide and we don't want people to know that we're veterans because then people look at us differently. So I think that that's really important, that you have a supportive environment for us to be able to flourish and be able to utilize those skills, not only for ourselves but be able to help other students as well.

Nicci Brown: What about the whole idea of questioning? When you're in the military it's very important that you follow command and that you work together as a unit. At universities, sometimes part of the core of things is to always question why, what if. Is that also a challenge?

Savanna Turner: For me, personally? No!

Nicci Brown: I got that!!

Savanna Turner: My experience in the military, before I was an officer, I was actually enlisted for nine years. I recently became an officer in the reserve and I was put into a field as a marine science technician. And so, I was actually in a field where it was welcoming to question things, not in a command sense, not in those more formalized systems that are in place, but more in the field work. So, I did a lot of environmental laws and regulations and inspections. So, we had to be very inquisitive about what we were doing and very like, ‘Why is the ship doing this, this way?’ So yes, they're not meeting the intent of the regulation, but you have to go more in depth on the why's and ask the questions.

And so I was in a position where that was a good thing, obviously not in certain scenarios, like chain of commands and things like that. So, I didn't really have a problem with transition. I think sometimes I ask too many ‘why’ questions. It gets me in trouble because I do tend to ask, if it's an administrative thing or something, I'm like, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ And that's not always the best approach. But, yeah. So, I think that that's, actually, in my experience, been a thing that I've been able to carry with me into my studies.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. So, let's talk about the original GI bill, or the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, as it was formally called. It was signed into law in June 1944 and is credited with having been a key contributor to establishing the American middle class and boosting the post-war economy. How do you view the impact of the Post-9/11 GI Bill?

Savanna Turner: That actually has been a huge benefit for a lot of people. For me, in particular, when I was working as an extension agent, when I got a civilian job and switched to the reserve, I was able . . . UF paid for most of my master's degree. I paid for a little bit here and there, but then I was able to utilize that degree or that Post-9/11 GI Bill to be able to get a doctoral degree, which is extremely expensive. And so being able to come out of here with a degree and not have any debt . . . I mean, I have some for my undergrad, but as far as my master's and Ph.D., I don't have any debt. And obviously, that's in the news a lot, we always talk about student loan debts. And so being able to serve your country and kind of be able to serve others and then the benefit you get is that you get a four-year university paid for. It's a huge benefit and it helps out a lot of people.

So being able to utilize that was a really big factor in my decision to become a doctoral student because I knew I didn't want student loans anymore and I didn't want to have to pay for that. And then, we also have an opportunity to have a monthly housing allowance. So that takes a little bit of the burden off of having to worry about being able to pay rent. Many of us still work part-time jobs. I'm a graduate assistant and so that helps with food and things like that. But it really has set me on this trajectory. I definitely would not be pursuing a doctoral degree without it. And I feel that a lot of students that use it kind of look at it like, ‘This is a great opportunity. I spent four years in the military and now I'm able to go to school for free.’ Basically, for free. It's been really beneficial for a lot of people.

Nicci Brown: And I think it's important to remember, though, this isn’t a zero-sum game. You've served your nation, then you're coming back and you're getting this great education, but that will again contribute to society as well.

Savanna Turner: Yeah, exactly. I mean, now, you think about a student veteran that's coming out — most of us are a little older, we’ve had some life experience. We have a lot of polished soft skills that we come into university with, that we can help mentor and teach others about our life experience. And then getting that formalized education that maybe compliments those soft skills that we've learned really makes us a better member of society. And we come out of the university with more, I guess . . .  I don't want to say we're more prepared, but we do have a lot more to offer the world as far as combining all of that experience.

Nicci Brown: You touched upon something there that I think is worth following up on about coming into the classroom and having some life experience. And I think that's another side of things that we talk about, the benefits that veterans bring to the university, to their classmates, that they do have these different viewpoints that they can share. And earlier in our conversation, you also mentioned that, at first, you didn't want to share that you'd been in the military. So, can you talk a little bit more about that evolution and just what veterans do bring to the atmosphere of a university?

Savanna Turner: Yeah. So, I still don't like sharing. I won't openly walk up to someone and be like, ‘Oh, I've been in the military for 10 years.’ I don't know. It just feels weird to talk about it. I talk about it sometimes in a general sense, like if I use that as an example in a classroom or something like that, but I still am not comfortable just talking about it openly. I actually talked to some grad students and I was like, ‘What do you think that I bring that's different?’ And a lot of them said, ‘That diverse world view.’ I have a different perspective on the world compared to my peers because — I didn't serve in a combat role, I wasn't stationed in another country — but I was on a ship and I did go to a lot of other countries, experienced a lot of cultures.

So being able to have a different worldview based on my life experience I think helps a little bit. When people get to know me it kind of . . .  I can offer up a lot more experience and say, ‘Hey, I think it's a good way to do this, but you may want to consider these other factors because I've been there, done that, and I made that mistake. Or I did this and I was successful.’ And so I think that that's a lot of what student veterans can offer. We're not going to openly do that. I think you have to, like I said, create a supportive environment where we're able to kind of offer up that worldview. But I think that we have a lot to offer as far as life experience, especially being that a lot of students are younger than us and maybe haven't had that experience yet. I think that we could offer a lot to be able to give some insight and some wisdom to some degree to some people.

Nicci Brown: Savanna, thank you so much for your service and thank you for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure chatting with you.

Savanna Turner: Yeah. Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation from Florida. We are going to be talking with Forrest Masters about his research on hurricanes. Please join us.

UF News November 9, 2021