published Thursday, October 17th, 2013

MTSU aids students attending on GI Bill during shutdown

After 16 days of the government shutdown, students attending Middle Tennessee State University on GI Bill benefits were left wondering if they could make November's rent.

However, MTSU was willing to bend a few rules.

Employees in federally funded programs for military students, such as Veterans Affairs departments, were furloughed and the offices closed Oct. 1 when the partial government shutdown began. That cut off the monthly stipend of up to $1,500 designated for students who are veterans, active-duty military or family members.

But MTSU said it was willing to allow military students to register for next semester's classes with an outstanding balance -- something off-limits to traditional students.

"We know the government will make good at some point, with our fingers crossed," said Ann Reaves, MTSU's interim registrar. "But the students wouldn't be able to do it on their own."

MTSU has a legacy of reaching out to veteran students through nontraditional means. MTSU's accounting department offered vouchers so veterans wouldn't have to pay tuition out of pocket after a hefty influx of soldiers returned from Iraq in 2009. As congressional debate postponed a new GI Bill revision, administrators personally offered to write local landlords requesting rent extensions for incoming veterans.

"I don't think any office on this campus would have a problem with writing those letters," Reaves said.

Even when the shutdown is over, the logistics of restarting military student operations are proving to be cumbersome. Since Heather Conrad, the campus VetSuccess counselor, has been furloughed and unable to enter her office for more than two weeks, the department will be playing catch-up to account for lost time.

That's where the volunteers come in.

Malcolm Stallard, a sophomore army specialist and president of veteran student support group "BRAVO," or Blue Raider American Veteran Organization, represents the campus's 1,200 vets and its estimated 2,000 students with a military background. He leads a group of students who volunteer to advise students in the VetSuccess building while the professional counselors trudge through their furlough.

"Everyone's freaked out," Stallard said. "Our main goal is to provide for our families, and the only way to do that is education."

Stallard said he hears the shutdown concerns of fellow veterans every day: They can't feed their families. They need another job. They might need to drop out.

"And if that's all they're hearing and seeing, that's all they do," Stallard said.

A shutdown notice on the Selective Service website states furloughed employees are to report back to their offices on the next duty day. However, until November's monthly stipends find their way through the MTSU pipeline, Stallard and BRAVO have created an emergency relief fund for individual student needs during the next two weeks.

Although an exact amount cannot be disclosed, an under-the-mattress fund with a goal of $10,000 is available to be split among veterans in need of the biggest little things: book money, groceries and gas.

"We have sacrificed our lives in order to have freedom," Stallard said. "But when you take away our benefits, that's taking away our lives and families."

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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