When Danielle Adams enrolled at Western Kentucky University in 2009 after more than seven years of active military duty, she was looking for a sense of camaraderie.
So she joined a sorority, hoping for a similar connection to tie her to the campus community.
“I really enjoyed it, but there was still something missing,” said Adams, 27, of Bowling Green. No one there could relate to her military experience, she said.
That’s when she discovered WKU’s Student Veterans Alliance, a chapter of Student Veterans of America, and became one of the group’s first members. Now she’s trying to expand the organization by building relationships between young veterans and the community.
The Student Veterans Alliance started two years ago as a way to bring student veterans together and provide resources to help them transition into college life. Adams is now president of the organization, which has about a dozen active members and a few dozen more with varying levels of involvement.
It’s one of a few military organizations at WKU. But, many student veterans do not take advantage of their services, partly because they are unaware of them.
So, Adams has been working to spread the word. She hangs posters around campus, talks to classes and faculty, and approaches veterans herself. Still, it can be hard to find veterans on campus, and Adams wants to reach more people.
“It’s difficult because we’re a protected demographic,” she said. “It’s been a challenge to reach out.”
Adams is planning several events for this fall in an effort to reach out. The group will have a barbecue Sept. 1 on the patio of Tate Page Hall as a back-to-school event. Then, on Sept. 8, the organization will host a 9/11 Hero’s Run in Kereiakes Park. The 5K run is an annual event that takes place in cities around the country to honor members of the military, police, firefighters and emergency responders, according to the website for the run.
Adams is also planning a leadership summit for student veterans across Kentucky and Tennessee on Sept. 29 at the Kentucky Museum. It’s a chance for them to come together and share their stories as well as brainstorm solutions to problems they face, Adams said.
“It’s just a really good exchange of information,” she said.
In October, Student Veterans Alliance members will work with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to help build a house. It’s a service project that will help show that veterans can be leaders and are valuable in the community, Adams said.
After all, the events are not only a way to connect veterans with one another, but also with the community.
“This will help them personally identify with a veteran,” Adams said.
A challenge facing young veterans is a lack of public awareness about the military, what they do and the problems soldiers face when they return. About 84 percent of the public say they have little or no understanding of the military, according to the Pew Research Center.
Adams hopes community members will go from being passively supportive to actively supportive of veterans, and that the fall events help “break that barrier that has been put up between veterans and their community,” she said.
After all, returning from military duty to a civilian life can be a “rough transition,” she said. For example, Adams knows what it’s like to return from the military jobless. She began searching for a job – any job – in Bowling Green when she returned. She got employed a year later.
“I couldn’t find a job,” she said. “After living on my own for seven and a half years – I had my own house; I had a car – I was pretty much on my own. It was a low point.”
Financial problems are the biggest obstacles student veterans face, said Tonya Archey, military student services director at WKU and a Navy veteran.
The average WKU veteran is living on $840 a month, and many are supporting families, trying to find jobs and taking college classes, she said.
“A lot are raising young families, and $840 does not go far at all,” Archey said. “One thing we try to convey to them is this is just temporary. You’re only going to be living week-to-week while you’re trying to get through college.”
Still, most veterans are committed to finishing college. They understand it’s important, and they have been trained to overcome challenges, Archey said.
“They’re great students. Their GPAs are really high,” she said. “It’s rare to find them without a 4.0. They’re really dedicated to what they’re doing.”
Adams understands both the benefits of a military training and the struggles when coming back from duty. She joined the Army when she graduated from high school. Her mother was in the Air Force, and her favorite teacher was a veteran.
Raised by a single mother in upstate New York, Adams knew she would need grants and scholarships to afford college. So, the military seemed like a good fit. She became an intelligence officer, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When she returned from duty, her mother had moved to Bowling Green, and Adams began preparing for college while searching for jobs.
Adams viewed getting her bachelor’s degree as an accomplishment that she was determined to achieve. But she found herself yearning for friends who could relate to her experiences in the military, something that the Student Veterans Alliance fulfilled.
“That hardest part from my transition is to not have ... peers,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone at my level.”