TAMPA — The University of South Florida hosted a conference Friday detailing strategies for serving the next generation of veterans pursuing degrees.
Gov. Charlie Crist showed up, and U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki shared his goals.
The latest GI Bill, passed last year, pays tuition and fees for veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. This fall, thousands enrolled nationally.
Because many veterans start at two-year colleges, USF doesn't expect to see a spike in enrollment for a couple years, university president Judy Genshaft said.
Right now, about 950 students with GI Bill benefits, including veterans and their dependents, are enrolled at USF.
When more veterans arrive, university administrators say they'll be poised to serve them. USF's nursing program is affiliated with the James A. Haley VA Medical Center just across the street. And USF was the first university in the nation to receive on-campus VA staffing through VetSuccess on Campus, a program designed to assist veterans as they matriculate.
In his keynote speech Friday, Shinseki told a room filled with university, VA and government officials that he's proud of what the VA department has done on the front end to offer these benefits. Now, he wants to focus on the final goal: graduation.
He wants a 100 percent graduation rate.
"This is a tremendous opportunity that the American taxpayer has provided," he said. "The return on investment is their graduation."
After his speech, Shinseki spoke to veterans enrolled at the university and urged them to graduate on time. One student, Glen Aleo, 43, said he plans to complete his history degree soon. He's a junior now, and he's also an assistant manager for USF's building maintenance department.
Aleo, who lives in Wesley Chapel, deployed to Iraq twice as an active reservist. But each time he returned home, he resumed his studies, he said.
Shinseki also told the conference audience that he apologizes for the VA's backlogged system. Many veterans are waiting for payments offered through the GI Bill to come through.
He blamed the paper system and said VA officials are working to transition to automatic, electronic operations.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.