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A daylong symposium at Northern Arizona University Friday focused on the needs and experiences of student veterans, from their low graduation rates to using their military education to their advantage in traditional higher education.

NAU has recently made a concerted effort to attract current and past members of the military to its Flagstaff and statewide campuses. Most notably, it's opened a dedicated support center on campus for veterans, and it is participating in a tuition discount that allows honorably discharged veterans to pay in-state tuition, regardless of where they come from.

On Friday, NAU hosted a conference about the issues veterans have and the supports they can still use. Roundtable discussions focused on educational transition and retention, employment, the legal system, reintegration with civilian life, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, "wounded warriors," and mental health and substance abuse, along with the unique experiences of female and Native American veterans.

Access can be hard for rural veterans who need to come into the Veterans Affairs clinic, so teleconferencing or use of the Ronald McDonald House to make a stay more relaxing would be good, suggested the PTSD and brain injury table.

For a newly discharged vet, finding independent housing or knowing how to pay their own household bills can be a new responsibility -- and a stretch of northern Arizona high country can look like Afghanistan, said the reintegration table.

The education transition group suggested allowing a veteran to apply the classes taken in the military (right now, military experience counts for elective credit), getting the word out that college is available and addressing the needs of first-generation students, as many former military also are. For support, they acknowledged the transfer program NAU has with Coconino Community College -- more than 40 students are in the "CCC2NAU" pipeline -- and suggested that a community college would be a good start, and that the in-state tuition discount be extended to dependents.

The retention group wanted to keep student veterans once they do find college.

Todd Carlson, a program coordinator at NAU's veterans' center, said the college graduation rate for veterans is in the single digits. Student veterans know how to focus on completing a mission, but they might not know how to ask for help. They can also face culture shock, inaccurate assumptions by faculty and the staff, and the challenges of blending with younger students who haven't had the same experiences.

The campus veterans' center can't do everything for all veterans, but it is a consolidated switchboard for services.

"We want to be remembered as the primary resource for veterans on campus," he said.

Key symposium partners were the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and the Arizona National Guard.

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

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