Student-veterans at WCSU seek help from one of their own
Veterans Affairs Coordinator Lt. Matt Kuchta smoothes vets’ transition to academic life
DANBURY, CONN. — When Lt. Matthew Kuchta welcomes an armed forces veteran to his office at Western Connecticut State University, he knows from personal experience the challenges, confusion and isolation that his visitor may be experiencing in making the difficult transition between military and academic life.
Kuchta, who earned his B.S. in Justice and Law Administration from Western in 2010, has been an officer in the Connecticut Army National Guard since 2011 and became the veterans affairs coordinator at WCSU in December 2013. As a military officer in active service who also is firmly grounded in knowledge of the university and of the federal programs created to help veterans pursue a college education, he possesses the capability to assist student-veterans in negotiating each step in the long path to a university degree.
“I’m here to help student-veterans, from their first day here to graduation and beyond,” Kuchta said during a recent interview at his office in Old Main on the university’s Midtown campus. “I help them with the transition process. The fact that I am an active service member means that they know who I am and where I’m coming from. They’ll say, ‘He knows what I’m going through — what it’s like to do basic training, to be away from my family, to be a veteran on a college campus.’”
Kuchta’s goal since assuming his present WCSU position has been to serve as a “primary point of contact” who provides student-veterans with clarity, consistency and coordination in guidance dealing with a wide range of topics ranging from veterans education benefits to university academic and support services. He often serves as one of the first WCSU representatives who greets veterans on campus, briefing new arrivals on veterans benefit programs and walking them through admissions, financial aid, registrar, health service and other university offices that will get them started on the road to a Western education.
Kuchta believes strongly in building one-on-one relationships that encourage student-veterans to reach out for advice and assistance, which helps to diminish their sense of isolation as nontraditional students and break down barriers to their integration in the university community.
“One of the biggest challenges for veterans returning from service is that they don’t really know where they fit in anymore,” he observed. Typically student-veterans enter college at an age five to 10 years older than a traditional freshman, and “they had to grow up fast in the service with the tasks that they were given and the duties that they had to perform,” he remarked. Accustomed to the structure of military life, they often feel a sense of dislocation struggling to adjust to their new identity as a civilian and a student, he said.
Kuchta first became aware of the need for coordinated university support programs for veterans during his service with Staff Sgt. Joseph Benete in the regional Connecticut Army National Guard recruiting office located at Western, where he met many student-veterans seeking guidance. One measure of the significant demand for assistance is the estimated total of approximately 150 WCSU students who currently receive some form of veterans education benefit. Kuchta expects that number to rise to more than 200 in the fall 2014 semester, and he is stepping up efforts to reach out to additional veterans enrolled at WCSU who may be eligible for benefits but have not yet come forward to apply.
The veterans affairs coordinator praised the support that Western faculty members provide to ease veterans’ transition to college studies. “The support that they give to the student-veteran community is incredible,” he said. “I have found that Western faculty members look for ways to do whatever they can for student-veterans, whether through counseling, academic advisement, financial aid, or arranging credits for military service training.”
Kuchta said veterans at WCSU are brought together through programs organized by the university’s Student Veterans Organization (SVO), comprised of past and current service members. The Student Veterans Lounge in the Student Center on the Midtown campus also provides a much-needed “oasis to interact with other student-veterans.” At the same time, he noted, it is important for the WCSU community to as a whole to value the contributions of student-veterans to the diversity and vitality of university life.
“I’d like to increase the awareness of student-veterans’ experience among the staff, faculty and students at Western so that everyone can come to know and understand us,” he said. “The university community should embrace the unique experiences of student-veterans, welcome their viewpoints even if they are different from their own, and be understanding of who student-veterans are and what we have gone through.
“We have many experiences to share, insights gained during our service and interactions with so many different cultures,” he added. “We can bring a lot to the table, and we would welcome the opportunity to do so without being afraid of being stereotyped as a veteran.”
Looking forward, Kuchta’s first priority is to expand Western’s outreach to veterans with a view toward increasing student-veteran enrollment. “We’re in the building phase now and, if we continue to build it, they will come to Western,” he said. He also aims to promote private donations to the SVO as a means to broaden the funding base for veteran-related programming at WCSU.
Kuchta has initiated efforts to persuade the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to place a VA staff member on the WCSU campus to serve as a representative for the Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership (VITAL) program, which seeks to improve veterans’ successful transition to academic studies by raising awareness of veteran-related issues and establishing a collaborative relationship between regional VA medical services and higher education institutions. “I want Western to be one of the universities in the forefront in Connecticut in offering and promoting this program,” he said.
For more information, contact Kuchta at email@example.com or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.