Programs Help Vets Succeed on Campus and Beyond
By David Perry
For Brandon Smith, finding the UMass Lowell veterans services office
meant a lot more than hanging out with fellow soldiers.
Smith says the office, and its director, Janine Wert, are the main reasons he’s pursuing a master's degree at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“I would not be attending the program that I am attending without her,” said Smith by phone from Texas, where he started classes weeks after earning his bachelor’s degree in May. “She’s like a best friend to me and to other veterans.
“I owe that woman my first house,” he said, chuckling.
U.S. Veterans Magazine has named UMass Lowell among its top veteran-friendly schools in its annual Best of the Best awards, published in its summer 2015 issue.
Wert says she and a grateful nation owe plenty to folks like Army veteran Smith. He’s one of 1,600 veterans she and her staff serve. Smith was one of 173 university veterans to graduate in May.
The Veterans Services office is dedicated to providing student-veterans with all the benefits available to them through the state and federal governments. Wert and staff (including student-veteran volunteers) help veterans negotiate the procedures for using the GI Bill, various fee waivers, tuition assistance plans, vocational rehabilitation/education programs and links to other services on and off campus.
Services for veterans don’t end with commencement. The Edge4vets program helps transition student-veterans into the workplace, maximizing their skills, resumes and access to professionals already in the workplace.
“The goal is to help veterans translate and use skills they gained in the service of their country in order to continue their service, but to the community,” says Wert. “It’s about transferring careers. These are people who still want to serve their nation and have valuable skills.”
If there is a shortcut that helps veterans get where they are going, Wert will steer them toward it. Because for some folks like Smith, who graduated with a degree in liberal arts
(with minors in history
), the road here was laced with explosive issues.
In April 2004, he was injured when three improvised explosive device (IED) blasts went off in a Baghdad tunnel he was driving through as part of a security convoy. He earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his valor.
The most serious of his injuries, exacerbated by the enclosed tunnel – was hearing loss. Ten surgeries followed, and Smith returned to Kansas to recover and serve active duty until 2007. He worked in the Army with orthotics and liked it so much he attended junior college in Kansas to earn his orthotics certification, treating and evaluating patients and making orthotics for them.
He moved to Massachusetts to find work in 2012, and the following year enrolled at UMass Lowell, attracted to its physical therapy degree. He worked full time as an orthotist for Hanger Inc. in Methuen, working on his degree through classes on campus and online. He opted to study liberal arts and it was the work, and his love of history that led Smith to minor in history. He believes history helps him understand and respond to his clients.
Married, with three children, he went to work making orthotics in a place “where I could smile every day.”
Wert pointed out to Smith that even though his GI Bill was expiring, he still qualified for vocational rehabilitation benefits, and the VA would pay his way to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“It’s an expensive program,” said Smith, “but it’s also one of the best.” He plans to graduate in December 2017 with a master’s in orthotics and prosthetics.
“I want to give back to the community that allowed me to do this,” said Smith. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity.”