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September 29, 2016

New administrator advocates for vets

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New Office of Veterans Services head Edwin J. Hernandez (third from left) with his staff outside their Posvar Hall office in the College of General Studies suite. From left are Brett J. Foley, program assistant; Leah Albert, outreach coordinator; and Steven Hernandez (no relation to the new director), veterans benefits coordinator.

Even before Edwin J. Hernandez took over this summer as director of the Office of Veterans Services, he had seen the difficulties some veterans have adjusting to civilian life — particularly life on a college campus.

Hernandez is a six-year Air Force veteran staff sergeant and served as an information manager at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 2000-06, working with Headquarters Air University and the Air Force Academic Instructor School to support 4,000 military students. In 2004, he also deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

“The transition from military service was challenging,” he says. “However, it was because of the discipline and structure that I learned during military service that I was able to stay focused on completing my graduate degree and continue a positive momentum towards achieving my post-military career goals.”

Still, he saw how some veterans, such as his wife, have a tougher time making the shift to academia.

“She didn’t realize what degree she wanted to obtain until later on, after she separated from the military,” he says. “I saw firsthand some of the struggles she had to adjust to … and how her mindset was different than other students.” Not only did she have more experience in the world than the typical 18-year-old freshman, like many former military personnel she already was a parent, with responsibilities beyond her studies. Students who are veterans have a different mindset, Hernandez says: “We’re talking about going from one culture to another.

“One of the things that nonveteran students forget is the fact that these are students going through a series of transitions. It reaffirms the need to establish programs that will expand on  [veterans’] experiences here at the University” — not just in the classroom, but through expanded peer-to-peer interactions.

Hernandez cautions that, since he only recently has assumed leadership of the veterans services office, he still is formulating specific plans in many areas. Still, he says: “Anything that we can do to facilitate the transition from the military to civilian life, we’ll be focusing on those things to make sure they are top notch. It’s a great opportunity for me to come back to Pittsburgh and do something I’m very passionate about.”

Hernandez’s decade-long higher-education career includes three years at Pitt as the alumni associate with the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation. More recently, he worked in development and alumni relations for the University of South Florida’s health schools. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Troy University and a Master of Science degree in industrial/organizational psychology from Kansas State University.

Combining his military and academic experiences, Hernandez says he hopes to create a welcoming environment for student veterans. He believes it is vital to mentor them and provide them with job opportunities in the local community.

To facilitate this, Hernandez says he intends to “try to increase interactions between alumni and [veteran] students … bringing all the resources together to maximize [their] experience while they’re at the University.”

Thus, he hopes to improve networking opportunities for veteran students, “making sure that we can open up some relationships with partners across the Pittsburgh community,” he says, “and hopefully open up some doors for career progression.”

Of course, veterans’ top needs are to maximize their GI Bill benefits and to connect with the available resources on campus, which is a chief duty of Hernandez’s staff. “We have a great team here,” Hernandez says. “We will be able to better direct them to the areas or units they need to talk to at the University,” including academic advisers, he says.

The team includes veterans benefits coordinator Steven Hernandez (no relation to the new director), program assistant Brett J. Foley and outreach coordinator Leah Albert.

What can the rest of the University community do to aid veterans on campus?

Surprisingly, Hernandez  urges that they participate in affinity groups such as Pitt Veterans and the Veterans Alumni Council  — “anything that has to do with student groups that enrich the lives of veterans. There are bound to be more opportunities for us to expand on these types of affinity groups.”

Hernandez assures that nonveterans are welcome in such groups as support members for their activities and to enhance veterans’ community relations.

A wider awareness about veterans’ issues is crucial, he says. “The more awareness we have, the better we will be able to support our veterans.” He hopes that his plan to connect veterans more extensively with alumni and with other students, staff and faculty will be an important first step toward this goal.

“There are a lot of organizations out there doing great work for veterans,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of getting connected.” He already has been contacted by veterans’ office directors at Duquesne and West Virginia universities about sharing resources.

Concludes Hernandez: “If we work together we’ll be able to achieve great things for our student veteran population.”

—Marty Levine                     

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