The VETS Office at the University of Montana has re-emerged behind a new push to ramp up veteran support programs and revitalize the campus chapter of the Student Veterans of America.

Shawn Grove, the VETS Office director and a Marshall University graduate, has helped champion the school’s efforts to bolster veteran support services, from greater participation in campus activities to stronger academic advising.

“It’s always been a federal regulation that students’ VA benefits pay for courses that apply to their degree,” said Grove, who served in the U.S. Army. “But schools have never been mandated to track that. We didn’t have the tools.”

Roughly 40 advisers in the Undergraduate Advising Center will now work with students who use Veterans Affairs educational benefits to pay for college. The advisers will ensure those students have a declared major and stay on track with their degrees.

Grove said the effort will reduce the time students spend on campus and ensure they receive college credit for their military experience.

“A lot of those credits are for general electives, but it’ll cut off a semester of a student’s time,” Grove said. “One of the good things about the initiatives with the VA plan is that we can hopefully prove that advising helps the students.”

As part of the plan, Grove said the Office of Career Services will help students identify job fields that appeal to them. The VETS Office has also seen a renewed push among UM veterans looking to connect with one another.

The effort has led to the reinvigoration of the UM chapter of the Student Veterans of America. In the past few months, Grove said, participation has increased.

“In the fall of 2012, they had an active group of 10 to 20 members coming to meetings and being active on campus,” Grove said. “Starting in the spring of 2013, those numbers dwindled, and by fall it was down to two active members.”

The VETS Office suggested the SVA hold early elections to breathe new life into the chapter. After elections filled the chapter’s leadership ranks, the group joined the American Legion and Full Moon Saloon in Stevensville to raise $3,000 for the Montana Wounded Warriors Program.

“It’s really a good way for students to connect with each other,” said Grove. “It doesn’t have to be a student veterans club, as long as they’re connected to campus. It’s a nice way to introduce them to student groups on campus.”

Student veterans have also become more engaged in campus life. Earlier this week, two U.S. Marines and UM students joined a roundtable discussion with Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., to discuss student debt and other issues surrounding college expenses.

Craig Misajet, a U.S. Marine who attended Monday’s meeting as the SVA campus president, said the revitalized UM chapter looks to provide the same sense of camaraderie veterans had in the service, but in a campus setting.

“A lot of vets get out of the military and they go from a very tight-knit group of friends with shared experiences to being a college student who is older than a lot of their peers,” said Misajet. “It can be hard for vets to find new groups of friends, and that is where the student veterans group comes in.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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