Caserto increases retention rate to 81 percent for veteran students

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The University of Nevada, Reno’s Director of Veteran Services Terina Caserto has worked with veteran students on campus since 2009 to help veteran students transition into a college lifestyle and have support on campus.

Caserto has grown the program from one full-time staffer back in 2009 to four full-time workers, 12 Veterans Administration student workers and provides services to over 600 veteran students.  Veteran services help to serve students transition into higher education and guide them through the processes of affording and paying for college.   

Since then, Caserto was awarded the Bill Pearson Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is given to individuals who have contributed and worked to helped to increase the services veteran students need in college, according to the Western Association of Veterans Education Specialist.  

“From the moment the student enrolls in the university and they come into our office and do a special intake we start giving them the lay of the land and how to navigate higher ed,” Caserto said. “We dissect every piece of higher education and what we have to navigate in order to be students.  We walk with them through that process, so they can be successful navigating themselves.”

Despite advancing the program to where it is now Caserto said there is always more to do in order to help students be successful despite personal struggles and keeping up with students who come from a high standard of excellence.

“I feel so passionately of what I do,” Caserto said. “I think it’s always living up to that standard. I support students that have such a high standard of excellence and drive and passion that I am constantly having to stay one step ahead. It’s not a negative thing, this family keeps me going and keeps that bar really high for me, and that is the best thing and probably the hardest thing of the position. There’s always more to do. There’s always a hill to climb and a mountain to concur.”  

Laura Saueressig, a veteran student on campus, said the support Veteran Services and Caserto have given her the tools needed to succeed educationally and providing a safe space where she feels welcomed.

“From doing the educational paperwork to get my benefits, with just having a comfortable environment with people that are nontraditional like me,” Saueressig said. “All the full-time staff are helpful in really any way.”

Caserto has worked with staff to make sure the department feels and acts like a family. Caserto said if students can come into an environment that feels like the military their transition will be smoother. She added without the department acting like a family there can be no progress regardless of where she wants to take the department.

“This is a unit; this is a family,” Caserto said. “It doesn’t matter what we’re going to do in the future, if we don’t have that cohesiveness here it’s not going to work because individuals coming out of that military environment and culture are also looking for that unit and family. If we can work that way together we can’t be successful for the student. Whatever it is we do, wherever we take it, it doesn’t matter. We can take it wherever we want. It how we work together in this department to make it happen.”

Saueressig said without the family environment she would not have been comfortable asking for help.

“That’s how the military is,” Saueressig said. “The military, the people you work with, are your family. I recognize that here too. I can go anybody for help and it’s a close-knit group.”  

According to Caserto, the biggest struggle for anybody transitioning into college is having to transition to a different culture and that is the biggest struggle for veterans because they are expected to excel almost immediately.

“The biggest difficulty, with anybody, is being ingrained in a particular culture. Which for [student veterans]  was the military, and higher Ed being so completely different on all levels; from the way they sit in a classroom to the way they are trained, to the way they communicate and how their needs are met. The transition itself from one culture to something entirely different, and having to be successful in that new culture immediately is the most difficult part.

Saueressig said the biggest struggle for her has been not being a traditional student.

Saueressig added that she feels Veteran Services is crucial to veterans.

“It’s the backbone of a veteran student,” Saueressig said. “They help us with anything we need, from being able to apply for our benefits to making sure we are doing what we need to do to be successful. They are with us every step of the way.”  

According to Caserto, the program has an 81 percent retention rate and is up from 48 percent back in 2009.

Caserto said success can be measured in numbers but she prefers to see students success on a one-to-one level.

“As an office and as services we look at success through their individual education plan,” Caseto said. “How they’re succeeding in their classes, how they are communicating, how they are taking this wonderful experience that they received through their prior career, and how they are successfully transitioning that to their day to day life on a college campus. It required that change in how they work and view things. Success is different to each student, and to me, that’s how were gaging our success.”

Andrew Mendez can be reached at andrewmendez@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.

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