Student veterans at the University of Hawaii are frustrated over failed attempts to get their own campus center. But now they’re rebuffing administrators’ efforts to understand and better meet student veterans’ needs.

The Student Veterans Organization at UH Manoa plans to boycott an April 26 campus conference entitled “Responding to Student Diversity: Understanding Servicemembers and Veterans,” according to an email from SVO president Catherine Drouillard.

Drouillard declined to explain the reason behind the boycott, but her organization and the Oahu Veterans Council are clearly frustrated with university officials. Both groups have lobbied the university since last fall for a veterans resource center on campus, but the administration has not yet provided the space.

The late Fred Ballard, former president of the Oahu Veterans Council, said there are about 400 military veterans at UH Manoa.

“The (student veterans) have been working very hard to obtain suitable space on campus to establish a veterans’ center where veterans can meet to support each other, therefore hopefully reducing the anxiety and stress of leaving the service and attempting to integrate back into the civilian community,” Ballard wrote in a letter to the UH Board of Regents in October. He added that the student group’s efforts have been “largely ineffective because of civilian counselors and employees’ lack of understanding veterans and their families’ needs.”

A recent report compiled by some of Hawaii’s top military, business and community leaders demonstrated that many service members need extra help transitioning back into civilian life. The need is growing as a new, young generation of service members return from war overseas looking for educations and jobs.

“Providing a support system (for student veterans) would go a long way in showing appreciation for their services and sacrifices for our country,” Ballard wrote in his letter.(Read the full letter1.)

State Rep. Mark Takai, a UH Manoa graduate and a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, said that while there is always more to be done for veterans, he thinks the SVO is going about its advocacy the wrong way. The boycott is a mistake, he said.

“I think part of (Drouillard’s) concern is that she wants things done for the veterans yesterday,” Takai said.

He believes the students should instead build on resources and services the university has already worked hard to provide — like the conference.

“I come from a different perspective,” he said. “I think over the years, UH has done very well in its service to veterans, and part of my goal in attending this conference is to continue to urge the university to move forward.”

The conference itself is a big step forward, he said. Sponsored by the Vice Chancellor for Students and the Student Equity, Excellence, and Diversity, and Outreach College, it is designed to educate interested students, faculty and staff on “the state and needs” of military service members and vets in higher education.

“This is the first conference its type, and I commend the university for taking this tremendous step,” Takai said. “Even though it’s a really bad time for me, because I have a lot going on at the Capitol, I reluctantly agreed to provide the keynote speech because I think what the university is doing is really great, and I support it.”

UH Manoa did not have an official SVO until September 2010. It is a registered independent organization, akin to a club, and claims on its website to have more than 100 registered members.

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