Veterans programs help college students serve again, on campus and beyond

One is from Pennsylvania and the other is from Iowa. Before coming to Penn State, the two men only seemingly had one thing in common: their five years of military service.

Carl Chindblom and Sergio Santiago both came to the University while transitioning from active duty back to civilian life, and they both found a home with the Office of Veterans Programs.

Penn State has more than 3,900 student veterans and military dependents using the G.I. Bill University-wide, with more than 950 of them studying at the University Park campus, and U.S. News has ranked Penn State University Park the No. 1 national university for veterans.

The office, in Boucke Building on the University Park campus, is organized as a comprehensive, direct service unit for veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) benefits recipients. In addition to five staff members, the office employs about 20 part-time student veterans.

U.S. News has ranked Penn State University Park the No. 1 national university for veterans.

Chindblom and Santiago both worked for the office as peer counselors, reaching out to prospective students.

“It’s been really rewarding because not only do I get to learn more about my benefits, I get to help other people with theirs,” Chindblom said.

Getting involved

As part of his work-study assignment, Chindblom reaches out to prospective students who may be eligible for DVA benefits to make sure they have all their paperwork in order “so they’re getting all the benefits that they can get.”

Childblom, originally from York, Pa., came to Penn State after serving in the Army for five years as an airborne paratrooper. After leaving the Army, he was looking for a university that was close to his family.

“Penn State really fit that bill,” he said, “so I wanted to get the most out of my college benefits, and I figured that Penn State is the most notable school in the area, why not get the best education from my benefits.”

But, when Chindblom came to Penn State, it took him a little time to become comfortable in his new life as a civilian and a student.

“The hardest part of transitioning from being an active duty soldier to being a full-time student civilian was really finding a good balance, which didn’t happen right away,” he said. “I really struggled with it my first semester and then luckily I got involved.”

When Chindblom joined the Penn State University Veterans Organization (PSUVO) and Omega Delta Sigma, a national veterans service fraternity, he felt more at home.

“Between those two, I luckily was able to find a really good balance of a social life, schoolwork and doing something service-oriented,” he said. “My schoolwork got better and it took me out of the funk of my first semester.”

Chindblom, a senior majoring in sociology and minoring in psychology, is now the president of Omega Delta Sigma and has been working as a peer counselor for a little more than a year. But he remembers the difficulty he had his first semester, and plans to turn his counseling work helping other veterans transition into civilian life into a career.

“Being in the military, you have a very structured life, you have people telling you where to be, when to be there, and what to be wearing when you’re there, so it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for having to figure out all these things on your own,” he said. “At the same time, you’re also giving up a huge support structure and the people who you work with. The men and women who you work alongside of are like your brothers and sisters. They’re the people who you want to be there for, and when you’re out in the civilian world, you’re on your own.”

Chindblom remembers getting a call himself from the office when he was applying to Penn State.

“It just made it so much easier to know what you’re walking into, especially being able to get the information out about the fraternity and the different clubs that we have going on. It makes it so much easier to make feeling like you’re coming into a new home where you’re going to be welcomed.”

A smooth transition

Former peer counselor Sergio Santiago shares Chindblom’s sentiment.

“Having a veteran guide you through the steps is helpful,” Santiago said, “especially when you find out that that veteran who is helping you is also a student, so everything you’re about to go through, they’ve been through recently.”

“Working for the Penn State veterans outreach office and, of course, the support of my wife were probably the two biggest factors in my making a smooth and joyful transition to becoming a civilian again."

— Sergio Santiago, Class of 2013

While Santiago always thought he would be a teacher, he first joined the Marine Corps after graduating high school because of the strong influence of his father and brother.

“They’re both men who I have respected my whole life,” Santiago said.

While the two men didn’t encourage him to enlist, “The few stories that I would every get from them about the Marine Corps were stories that never left my mind — stories of brotherhood and camaraderie, and this sense of duty and self-respect that I have never seen in any other community outside of the military, and the Marine Corps, specifically.”

Santiago served for five years before deciding to pursue his first passion. While looking for the right school, he took advice from some friends.

“My last year in the Marine Corps, I met a lot of really close friends who were from Pennsylvania, and they said lots of amazing things about the campus, about the other campuses, and as soon as I made my decision to leave the Marine Corps, I started looking at schools in the area and seeing what Penn State’s College of Education had to offer,” he said. “I was very interested and put all of my efforts into getting into Penn State.”

During his first class at the University, Santiago met another former Marine who told him about the work-study program in the Office of Veterans Programs. Santiago soon applied.

In the three years he spent in the office, Santiago helped hundreds of other students veterans just like himself.

“We did a lot of counseling on how they should approach scheduling for courses and who they should talk to for what reasons,” he said. “We were kind of a middle person in between them and them having a successful academic experience at Penn State.”

But for all the help he has given, Santiago feels he has received just as much.

“Working for the Penn State veterans outreach office and, of course, the support of my wife were probably the two biggest factors in my making a smooth and joyful transition to becoming a civilian again,” he said. “I was very, very fortunate to have the support of the Penn State veterans office and the Penn State University Veterans Organization [PSUVO] to kind of come back to life and to be a part of the society that I hadn’t seen for the over five years that I served.”

Santiago became involved in PSUVO, where he spent a lot of time fundraising for the Wounded Warrior Project.

“A big part of my involvement is that I’m very, very grateful for being able to walk away from the Marine Corps with all my limbs. I’m very grateful for being able to still conduct my life like I do,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I can’t forget all of the other service members, all of my other brothers and sisters in arms who were not so fortunate, so that’s the biggest factor in me being so heavily involved in raising funds for this organization.”

Santiago graduated in May 2013, and is working as a teacher in Washington, D.C., with Teach for America. As part of the program, he’s also attending George Mason University as a master’s student in elementary curriculum and instruction.

“Probably throughout my junior year, I started realizing that if I wanted to be a teacher, I didn’t want to be a teacher to move to some community where I would lead a typical nine-to-fiver. I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to be placed somewhere where I would be utilized to my max potential,” he said, adding, “It’s so much more than just a job. These students are beautiful and they’re so eager to learn and to be loved, but they need so much support and they need great teachers to give that support.”

Santiago’s wife of three years, who is finishing up her degree at South Hills School of Business and Technology in State College, couldn’t be more proud of his work at Penn State and beyond.

“He had gotten that job counseling other veterans and he was able to relate to them,” Ginny Santiago said. “They were going through what he was going through. Struggles, transitioning, getting out of the military and starting up with school. It really helped him to be able to help them.”

While her husband’s placement in Washington, D.C., means the couple will have to be separated for a few months, she said it’s worth it.

“It’s hard to be apart again, but it’s like we fell back into that same role like we were the first time [when he was in the Marine Corps],” she said. “We’re just supporting each other in the same way, and he’s doing really great things with the kids that he’s teaching. Just the same way he’s able to relate to people in the military and at Penn State, he’s able to relate to these children and be a strong figure in their lives.

“Everything that he does, whatever he’s doing, his biggest thing is that he has to be helping others. I just feel like that leads whatever he’s doing in life,” she said.

Remembering, and giving back

In honor of Veterans Day, Omega Delta Sigma sponsors a ceremony at noon in front of Old Main, in which Penn State Army, Air Force and Naval ROTC units also participate. This year several veteran students in the Penn State community also will visit local assisted living homes to hand out flags to older veterans in State College.

Veterans Day is also the culmination of “Nontraditional Student Recognition Week,” a nationally celebrated week of recognizing adult and veteran students from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11.

Leslie Laing, assistant director for Penn State Adult Learner Programs, organized this year’s weeklong event, which included workshops, a networking mixer, career counseling and a men’s hockey game outing. Laing added that her office also hosted the red carpet premiere of “Murph: The Protector” at the State Theatre in October. More than 600 people attended the showing of the feature documentary about Penn State alumnus and Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Michael Murphy. The DVD will be released in January.

On Saturday (Nov. 16), Penn State’s World Campus will launch its first-ever cellphone text campaign during the Penn State-Purdue football game to raise funds for the World Campus annual Military Student Fund, which helps currently serving military personnel (active, Guard and Reserve) and veteran students enrolled online in Penn State educational programs with expenses not covered by their military education benefits.

Carl Chindblom says joining the Penn State University Veterans Organization (PSUVO) and Omega Delta Sigma, a national veterans service fraternity of which he is now local chapter president, helped him feel more at home on campus.

For Chindblom, the work in the office is just part of giving back.

“With all that we’ve done, others have done so much more and given so much more, so they definitely deserve thanks and remembrance, especially with Monday being Veterans Day,” he said.

Chindblom plans on attending the noontime service and visiting the older veterans in the region.

But Veterans Day isn’t the only day he will reach out to the men and women he calls his brothers and sisters. His advice to veterans who may be looking to go to college:

“Get involved. Don’t be afraid to socialize. Seek out other veterans. Look to do good. Give yourself a mission,” he said. “I think that having a mission, a drive and a direction helps you to make better choices for yourself and for those around you.”

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Last Updated November 11, 2013