Veteran students at Vanguard University oppose school’s decision to replace veterans center

Share via

Veteran students at Vanguard University are opposing the school’s decision to get rid of its Veterans Resource Center, which has served as a haven and safe space for veterans to connect with one another.

It’s expected to close after the semester in early May.

Veteran student leaders believe it will remove a vital part of the school’s support services to veterans.

“The center is just a place that has done so much good,” said Daniel Pounds, president of the school’s Veteran Student Organization. “It may not sound like that big of a deal until you know the history of this place and the history of the bonds. There’s two of us in there now who are combat veterans. One of our guys has a purple heart. He brings his dog in. It’s like relationships just grow so naturally. I can’t even tell you how amazing it is.”


Austin Wilchek, the organization’s vice president, explains that it can be harder for veterans to connect with their younger classmates: “We are an older population, and we have a lot more life experience. Some of these people have PTSD issues.”

The school committed to replacing the center with a resource library with a few computers and a printer, and another office with a conference table to serve as a quiet study space for veterans. The two offices will be on the first floor of a freshmen and sophomore dormitory.

Pounds and Wilchek believe the new proposed veteran spaces are a downgrade from the current center.

“It seems like an answer to soften the blow,” said Pounds, an Iraq and Afghanistan wars veteran.

The current center was built about five years ago as part of a remodeling of the school’s Scott Academic Center. At the time, much fanfare was made about the new veterans center, which doubled the size of the original to 1,100 square feet.

The center was built just a year after U.S. News & World Report named Vanguard University one of the top regional colleges in the West for veterans.

Vanguard University has deep ties with the military. The private college was built on the land of the former Santa Ana Air Base. The university also trained chaplains who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tim Young, vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Operations, said in an emailed statement that the school will continue to provide “unwavering” support to its more than 50 veteran students.

“Their commitment, service to our country, and unique experience offers an important dimension to the landscape of students on our campus,” Young said. “We are committed to supporting their academic and personal success.”

Young said the school found that the veterans center was being “underutilized.”

“In addition to the amenities of the new Student Center at the heart of our campus, veterans will have access to a dedicated Veteran Resource Library located in the Center for Inclusive Excellence on the first floor of Huntington Hall starting this summer,” Young said. “This location will provide a quiet space for studying and resources as well as ongoing support from a Veteran student worker.

“We have engaged a key group of veteran students in conversations as we have made this transition to ensure we are meeting the needs of these students. While the physical location of veteran resources will change, we remain steadfast in our dedication to fulfilling the needs of veteran students.”

Nancy Montgomery, assistant dean of health, wellness and veterans at Irvine Valley College, said veterans resource centers are crucial for the success of veterans on college campuses.

“Taking away programs never helps an underserved, low-income population,” Montgomery said. “They are already struggling. They need extra support.”

“Most colleges, and especially private universities, are looking at it from a financial perspective, a bottom-line type of aspect,” she continued. “I think that is not the way to look at it if we are looking at student success.”

In 2018, Montgomery coordinated a team of community college veteran services representatives and researchers from the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges to study the impact of veterans resource centers in the state.

The study found that the centers help veterans who wrestle with a number of issues while navigating college life.

“Veterans’ physical and mental health concerns can impede their success in college, particularly when these problems intensify challenges already faced by non-veteran students: financial barriers, housing, transportation, family responsibilities, work, time management, study skills, learning to navigate college policies and procedures, and connecting with college culture,” the study says.

Pounds and Wilchek believe the removal of the Vanguard center is indicative of the school’s disinvestment of veterans, a product of the school’s prioritization process in 2018, when departments and programs were analyzed in an effort to carve out a plan for Vanguard’s future.

Brian Burlingame, the school’s former veterans resource center coordinator, said he was laid off about a year and a half ago as part of the prioritization process. Burlingame, a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps, was the primary source of aid and guidance for veterans on campus.

“The school took away the guy that had been advocating for us,” Pounds said. “He’s gone now, and we are left without a voice.”

Several administrators have been given Burlingame’s role since he was let go, though they lack the veteran background. The position also no longer is fully dedicated to just helping veterans. The current person in charge of veterans programming, Denise Khaw, is the associate dean of students.

“You lose the expertise of having somebody there who understands,” Burlingame said. “Without a coordinator or veteran director, they just no longer have that connection.”

Montgomery, who knew Burlingame, spoke to the importance of his presence at Vanguard.

“He was extremely dedicated,” Montgomery said. “I believe having somebody like that there makes a difference in how students succeed. These young men and women in the military, they come out of the military and they look up to these higher-ups and people who can be role models and peer mentors. I believe that Brian was that peer mentor. Having those people dedicated in that office will make a difference in how those veterans succeed.”

Burlingame, who was there from 2014 to 2018, said the center was a focal point of building campus engagement with the veterans during his time there. In his view, taking it away is a disservice to the many veterans who view it as a safe haven.

“I had some of them who had gone through some tough times and spent the night in that veteran center,” Burlingame said. “They knew they were safe and it was their place.”

Burlingame continued: “They need a space that is filled with people they 100% trust, and it needs to be a specific veterans space that is dedicated to them for reasons that most people can’t fathom or will never understand. Every one of those kids, they absolutely deserve the very best, and that’s not what has been happening for the last year and a half.”

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.