The University of Wyoming’s student veterans marked a milestone moment Friday with the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Marna M. Kuehne Foundation Veterans Services Center.
Construction was completed in July and Veteran Service Center staff started moving in Aug. 5. On Aug. 10, when the move in was completed, Marty Martinez, senior project coordinator for the VSC and Veterans Program, said he was taking a solo walk through the center when it really hit him that his student veterans and service members had a new home.
“My staff had left and I stood here and I just looked through the center,” Martinez said Thursday. “I almost got a little emotional, because it was overwhelming to realize what we’d worked for, what we fought for for so long, was a reality. This was something we are going to be able to share with veterans that will make such an impact for us.”
Every aspect of the 2,300-square-foot facility is designed to be functional and meet the special needs of veterans. Whether a veteran has a disability such as Post Traumatic Stress, a brain injury or a physical disability, the facility on the third floor of the university’s Wyoming Union centrally located on campus is designed to accommodate. Students have areas to relax, hold meetings, seek counseling, make a meal or just relax in rooms that feature adjustable lighting, soundproofing and privacy features. And there’s more than enough room for students who might be in wheelchairs or have other physical needs to navigate comfortably.
That last point is particularly important for Martinez, a Wyoming Army National Guard veteran himself. The previous location of the Veterans Services Center in Knight Hall, though accommodating when student veterans first occupied it, quickly became cramped and uncomfortable. In summer 2016, a visiting student veteran and his mother came from Montana. When the student, who sustained injuries in the Iraq War, tried to enter the 650-square foot facility, he was unable to do so because it was too tightly packed to accommodate his wheelchair.
For Martinez and his students, that was the moment they decided the old center had gone from being inconvenient to something that had to change.
“I remember the term we used when we were talking about it with our veterans in the center was, ‘This is unacceptable,’” Martinez said. “It was apparent to all of us — we almost felt like we failed. We wanted to be able to help the university to see the need for a new facility and to really try to bring that need to fruition.”
It didn’t take long for figures in and outside of the university to understand that need. Within three to four months of seeking donations, Martinez said six separate donors contributed about 75 percent of the $870,000 price tag. It’s namesake for which it was dedicated Friday is a tribute to the largest contributor, the Marna M. Kuehne Foundation out of Sheridan.
Now the 636 military-connected students at UW have a truly exceptional facility that addresses their needs, Martinez said. Among university’s across the nation, Martinez said UW’s student veterans center stands out. For recruitment purposes, Martinez said that’s huge. Moving into the center, he said, is a transformative moment for the university’s programming for veterans and service members.
“I do believe this is a turning of our page,” Martinez said. “We sort of feel we had progressed our program to about as far as we had go. … This center gives us the opportunity to bring students here.”
Angie Neuman was sitting in the center Thursday with her headphones in, deeply engaged with textbooks and her laptop. She’s been with the Wyoming Air National Guard for 18 years and just signed up for three more. But at UW, Neuman, who calls Rawlins her hometown, was studying for her first-semester Spanish course.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve taken Spanish, so it’s like starting all over again,” she said with a laugh.
While Neuman would have continued studying at UW whether a new Veterans Service Center was built or not, she said she would not have returned to the center.
“I was done with it — I was over it,” she said. “I couldn’t take it. It was too much for me. I don’t know what that is, but it was too much.”
But Neuman said she loves the new center. As such, she said she spends a lot of time there.
“Everyone has their own little places,” she said. “it’s the second week of school and everyone has already kind of figured out where they like to hang out and where to study. … You can breathe.”
Many veterans and service members will tell people that there’s just something about being in the military that civilians can’t understand. And adjusting to civilian environments after years of military service often comes with difficulties. For Neuman, it’s important to have a place that’s filled with people who understand one another.
“We have a connection that we just don’t have with any of the other students on campus,” she said. “It’s nice to have.”