Marywood University's new veterans center opened last semester without any permanent student housing, but veterans moved in anyway.
"We always have between seven and 20 veterans in here," said Lauren Williams, the school's director of military and veteran services. "It's a space on campus where they feel welcome. They meet with each other, they rely on each other. It's like a family here."
The Scranton, Pennsylvania, college built the new center thanks to funds from the Veterans Center Initiative Grant program, a partnership between Student Veterans of America and the Home Depot Foundation.
That program launched last year with the goal of helping a handful of colleges improve veteran-specific space on campus, to ease student veterans' transition to university life.
This weekend, program officials announced an expansion of the grant program to 50 more campuses this spring, a $400,000 investment by the foundation. Officials began taking questions and proposals for the upcoming grants at this year's annual SVA conference.
The foundation has backed more than $80 million in housing projects in the last four years to help national efforts to end veterans homelessness. Andy Benson, senior program manager at Home Depot, said the new student center projects are a dramatic departure from that work, "but another chance for us to give back to veterans."
Marywood received $9,500 through the program, and used that money to start renovations on an old campus residence hall last spring. Williams said other community members donated time and supplies to the effort, allowing the veterans center to move from a shared, cramped office building into a new home.
Heather Prill Pritchard, senior manager for national partnerships at the foundation, said other past projects ranged from simple renovations to "moving offices from closets to brand new spaces."
About 150 student chapters applied for the first round of grants, she said, illustrating the need for the funds and the desire to build stronger veterans communities on campuses.
"We want them to be able to create their own space, and build a stronger connection with their schools," she said.
Williams said the new Marywood veterans center boasts desks and meeting rooms for students, a kitchen for commuters with tight travel schedules, and even some cots for naps in between classes.
But the extra room has also allowed the center to launch partnerships with off-campus veterans groups, with plans to offer benefits counseling and other services in coming months. Those programs will be open not just to student veterans but other veterans in the community.
"Being part of a community was so important to these veterans when they were in the service, and it's something they're all looking for once they get out," Williams said. "So that grant did so much for us, and not just money wise."
For more information on the grants, visit studentveterans.org.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.