Redefining "Veteran Friendly College"

October 09, 2012

Jose Coll has the devotion to duty of a Marine, the knowledge, expertise, and passion for advocacy of a social worker, and the heart for students of an educator.

It’s a unique combination of traits that serve him well as Saint Leo University’s director of Veteran Student Services.

“I understand that our active military and veteran students are at Saint Leo to complete a mission – to get from point A, to point B, which is graduation and beyond,” he said.

“Seeing students succeed is the best part of my job.”

According to Coll, traditionally every department at Saint Leo has contributed to serving veteran students. Poised to celebrate its 40th year in partnering with the military, SLU is known as one of America’s largest and most committed providers of higher education to the armed forces.

“It takes the entire university to do what we do so well,” said Coll.

With the passage of the Post 9/11 Veterans Education Bill, the number of students registering for courses using veterans education benefits at Saint Leo increased by 35 percent over the last year. Coll believes that surge will continue.

Anticipating the needs of those who served, SLU opened the Office of Veteran Student Services last year. Coll is the university’s chief point-of-contact for veterans seeking assistance in navigating the unfamiliar world of academia. He provides support, information, and a connection to resources that meet their needs as veterans and as students.

Understanding the Veteran Experience

Coll is well suited for the job because he understands personally the challenges associated with transitioning from one way of life to another. It’s an experience he has encountered time and again, beginning at a young age, when his parents decided to flee Cuba for the United States during the Mariel Boatlift.

The first American Coll encountered in Key West was a Marine. The impact of that moment triggered his own desire to join the Marine Corps. Coll served with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company at Camp Pendleton where he supervised combat parachuting operations and training.

Four years later, his next transition was to that of veteran student at Saint Leo. He received a bachelor’s degree in social work, followed by an MSW from the University of Central Florida with the assistance of the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program for disabled veterans. With the aid of the GI Bill®, Coll went on to earn a doctorate in counseling education and supervision from the University of South Florida.

Military Social Work Innovator

Due to the positive experience and mentorship he received at Saint Leo, Coll decided to enter academia. He joined SLU’s faculty in 2004 and served as chair of the social work program before accepting a position at the University of Southern California. While there, he developed the country’s first military social work program, launched the first Veteran Services Program of its kind at a major research university, and served as a Congressional consultant on military social work.

Coll knows that service members returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan have global experiences and leadership lessons unlike any previous generation. He has conducted research, presented nationally, and written extensively about the needs and struggles faced by military personnel and their families, including co-authoring two books, one on military social work and another on military culture for civilian counselors.

“The transition from military to civilian life can be a daunting task,” said Coll. “Today’s veteran students may be dealing with issues that rarely affect other students, including traumatic brain injury or other disabilities, which can impact how they learn or interact with others.”

Ensuring a “Veteran-Supportive” Environment at SLU

By the same token, Coll says that veterans are not a ‘one size fits all,’ and that just because a school meets Yellow Ribbon requirements doesn’t make it veteran or military ‘friendly.’

“We need to get away from the ‘veteran friendly’ metaphor and become a true ‘veteran-supportive environment,’ in which we take a proactive look at what works best in order to ensure academic success.”

To do that at Saint Leo, Coll is developing relevant training for faculty, staff, and students. He is initiating new ways for veteran students to connect on campus and at centers. He is promoting the critical role faculty veterans can play in mentoring veteran students, as well as developing ways to educate the SLU community on military culture and veterans’ issues.

“I believe that assisting veterans succeed is not the sole responsibility of the VA or DOD,” said Coll. “It should be the responsibility of all of us.

“We have a duty and an obligation to serve those who served our country.”