'You’re not the only one': Veterans serving veterans at Penn State

November 09, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kris Biegel has never been one to shy away from a challenge. In fact, the 26-year-old kinesiology student joined the Marines at 18, in part, precisely because he wanted to face a challenge that would help him grow and mature as a person.

“I always promised myself to do my military service, and then once I got out I’d go to college. I’d take that discipline and the core values I’d learned in the Marines — honor, courage and commitment — and apply them to school.”

And Biegel overcame those challenges with grace under pressure, turning 19 while still in bootcamp before serving in the United States Marine Corps for four years, including tours of duty in the Middle East and the Pacific. But when he first came to Penn State, he faced a brand new kind of challenge — one he’d never expected.

“When I first applied to Penn State, I didn’t even know what a Nittany Lion was, I just knew it was a school with a great reputation that was supposed to be good for veterans,” Biegel said. “But the hardest part for me was that I came here and I didn’t know anyone, or how a university like this works: how to schedule classes, where anything was, who advisers were. Honestly? It was overwhelming.”

Lauren Fend, a counselor in Penn State’s Office of Veterans Programs, said Biegel’s experience is not uncommon among student veterans. For many vets, the change from military life to civilian life is already a transition that poses its own challenges. Combine that with the challenges that come with starting one’s college career, and it’s easy to see how some vets might find syllabus week more intimidating than bootcamp.

But here’s the thing about veterans: They’re a community rooted in service. So when Renée Thornton-Roop, associate director of the Office of Veterans Programs, and Lead Counselor Elise Van Cise noticed how upperclass veterans would come together to show the ropes to their fellow vets starting their freshman year, an idea occurred to them: a mentorship program (called a “sponsorship” program, to echo military lingo) so that every incoming veteran would have a fellow vet they could reach out to with any questions as they adjust to life at Penn State.

“We launched the veteran sponsorship program in fall 2015, and we immediately began seeing the impact,” Thornton-Roop said. “We got so much positive feedback — ‘It’s so cool you offer this’ or ‘I feel more comfortable having another vet to talk to’ — but I was really struck by how our current students jumped on the chance to help their fellow vets as they were just starting out. Their compassion and dedication to service is inspiring.”

On average, 80 first-year veteran students participate each year in the program, which has adopted a holistic approach to veterans' assistance focused on everything from academic success to maintaining healthy social lives. 

Biegel’s first days as a Penn State student were tough. There was no morning call for physical training, none of the “eat, drink, sleep Marine Corp” regiment that had defined his time in the service. But once he started working with the veterans office, and especially once he started talking with his veteran sponsor, things began to fall into place.

“There were simple things, like what to do with my benefits certification form, that I would’ve spent all day trying to figure out. They helped me sort it out in 20 minutes,” Biegel said. “They would tell me, ‘if you have any questions, just come to me, and I’ll keep pushing out what I’ve learned to you,’ and that made all the difference in the world.”

Before long, Biegel was working in the Office of Veterans Programs as part of a work-study program and helping other vets navigate the same challenges he had struggled with himself. So when the chance to become a sponsor for a new group of incoming veterans presented itself, Biegel jumped at the chance to continue giving back to his community.

“If nothing else, this program shows these vets that they’re not alone, they’re not the only one,” Biegel said. “And you’re not. You’re not the only one. We’ve gone through this too, and we’ve got your back.”

Now Biegel is fast approaching his graduation — a date that, a couple of years ago, he might have had trouble imagining.

“To be honest, without this office and this support, I think everything would’ve been so much harder. I’m not sure I would’ve made it,” Biegel said. “So I’m thankful for that.”

Last Updated November 13, 2018