When Jason Conner returned to the U.S. after his deployment in the Marine Corps, his first stop was at a gas station.
He was amazed at all the products the gas station held, the many options he had and that the language written on the products was something he understood.
“It was only a gas station, but that’s a moment I will never forget,” Conner said.
Conner, vice president of the Collegiate Veterans Society, organized the society’s float for UF’s Homecoming Parade on Friday. He said Homecoming at UF serves as a reminder of his own return to the U.S. from the military.
“Homecoming is completely different for (student veterans) in a way,” Conner said. “The first time I stepped foot in America, it was a whole different feeling.”
A five-ton military truck is set to drive down University Avenue and serve as the society’s float in the parade.
“We are going to be wearing our military shorts, running around, waving flags and supporting some praise,” he said.
Charlotte Kemper, the Veterans Affairs counselor at UF’s Collegiate Veterans Success Center, has been walking in the parade with the Collegiate Veterans Society since she started working at UF in 2013.
“It’s very exciting because they come together for the camaraderie,” she said.
David Leh, a U.S. Navy veteran and UF engineering junior, said Kemper is like a cheerleader for the veterans in the center and that her presence helps them.
The Collegiate Veterans Society holds their biweekly meetings tucked away in Yon Hall, a building hidden in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The space serves as a home away from home for student veterans, Leh said. When he’s not in class, he’s in the office studying or hanging out with friends.
The center is a resource for student veterans to receive counseling, study and spend their free time surrounded by fellow student veterans, Kemper said.
Strewn across a cork board are images of student veterans from their time in the military. One of the walls holds a map of the world covered in pins to show the far away places these student veterans were deployed to, from different U.S. locations to places including Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
The center was established in January 2013, Kemper said. UF is one of only 94 universities in the nation with a Collegiate Veterans Success Center.
“Traditionally, the Veterans Affairs program is (to) call an 800 number and sit on hold,” Kemper said. “But with this program, it’s an open door.”
UF competed with other universities to be selected by the Veterans Affairs Office for the Collegiate Veterans Success Center to be established on campus. Kemper said UF was chosen for the space because they proved themselves most eager to provide for the veterans.
UF volunteered a physical location for their center and decided to have a success counselor on campus, which Kemper said was unique.
Kemper works closely with student veterans and dependents to ensure they are receiving their veteran health and education benefits, systems that can sometimes be complicated to navigate, she said.
“It’s just a joy to be able to make a difference and help even in the tiniest way,” she said.
Samantha Cooper, a UF agricultural education and communication senior, served in the U.S. Air Force for five years, spending some of her time in Djibouti, Africa. She was medically discharged from the Air Force three years ago and started at UF in Fall 2016.
She chose UF specifically because of its resources for veterans.
“This is a school that is well known for taking care of its veterans,” Cooper said.
The help Kemper provides is not limited to veteran benefits, Cooper said. She described Kemper as her lifeline for all issues that come up in her life.
“I was having trouble with computer access just to get sport tickets, and she sat with me on the phone with these people just to get that taken care of,” Cooper said. “She does things she definitely does not have to for us.”
When Cooper was in the Air Force, she had direct resources to assist her with any of her needs and was continuously under instruction, she said. Adjusting to the abrupt end of that assistance after being discharged was difficult for her.
“When you come out and you do every aspect of your life, you have to figure out everything,” she said.
Leh said the center builds a sense of community for student veterans.
“We are older than the average student, and we have had experiences that are different from the average student, so it’s nice to come here and express how we feel where everyone will understand,” Leh said.
Cooper said the space helped her find her way on campus.
“(The center) is our safe space,” Cooper said. “It’s a family.”