By: Asha Tompkins, Staff Writer
Some were in the Navy, some in the Army, others on aircraft carriers and submarines. These are the people who are grudgingly familiar with living a lockdown lifestyle. With such experience, they’ve provided a reassuring haven for students during Covid-19.
“The Veterans Resource Center [VRC] serves to support USM students who are veterans and their dependents as they transition from military life to the collegiate atmosphere. Staffed by VA work-study students, the VRC provides a safe environment to connect with other vets as well as a place to get information about services and resources students need to be successful at USM,” stated the VRC page.
Due to Covid-19, the VRC which was previously located inside Sullivan Gym on the Portland campus has since transitioned into an online presence. John Pride, a work-study employee of the VRC, expressed their initial concerns about the incoming students who are veterans during this time.
“Veterans are all non-traditional students, they’re coming off a previous career,” Pride said.
He explained that as opposed to traditional students, it’s a situation where they don’t have the benefit of having their feet under them, where they understand USM and know who to call or know where everything is.
“It can be mysterious when this happens in the second semester, for a lot of the veteran students it is, and some of them are just showing up now,” Pride said.
He stated that the VRC was worried that incoming students would have a hard time connecting the dots on any of the questions that might arise upon going through with their semesters, including building schedules with their advisors.
“We didn’t want to — without the ability of going into the physical office — leave them out in the cold. So, Lorrie Spaulding and Alley Morrissey, the full-timers that manage the program, wanted to set something up to make us available to the student veterans.”
Pride said that after this idea was pitched, they ultimately settled on Zoom meetings with a standing address which was created by Bradley Lester, a student employee. Now the virtual VRC essentially offers the same services as before.
“An unexpected benefit is that it’s actually a lot more trafficked than the real office was,” said Pride. “People are going a little nutty, everyone’s stuck in their house, whereas before we would see people often, but they would come in and ask quick questions . . . some would hang out a little longer and others would go on their way.”
They’ve noticed faces that didn’t used to come around. Pride explained that during these times, students just need somebody to talk to.
“Everybody spends a lot of time in their apartment, we honestly didn’t see that coming. People are showing up and they’re really just hanging out more than anything, which is kind of funny.”
Pride said that was when they realized it was a good thing that they set up the online presence, because they’re even seeing students that are out of state.
“I’d like to take credit for us having known that cabin fever would be a thing and that turnout would be the most valuable resource to bring to the table at the virtual center, but we didn’t see that coming,” said Pride. “Now we man it through full business hours.”
The first shift starts at 7 a.m. and it’s generally manned until 4:30 p.m. There could be a face or two or even seven in the Zoom chat.
“The really funny thing is we see people coming in and doing homework, and that’s fine, the VRC is for everybody.”
Pride said that this time is almost drawing out a deployment mindset.
“I lived in a Soviet bathroom for six months, it was a repurposed bedroom, me and one other guy. We’ve all said it, one of our older veteran’s said it: ‘I feel like I get up and I should put a uniform on.’”
He explained that one will see the same two or three rooms or buildings every day. It’s an unintended consequence that they as veterans understand.
“That’s one of the things where I want to see more of the civilian student body show up,” said Pride. “That’s fine with us if someone says ‘hey, what did you guys do when you were stuck in the same room?’ Because everyone’s got a different story. We’ve got a guy who taught himself the guitar in three months, all kinds of little tricks, like you get really good at sudoku.”
Pride said that his two biggest takeaways would be that he didn’t realize Zoom would be such good medicine for the cabin fever, and how eerily similar the situation is to some of the things the veterans have already experienced in their pasts.
“The same routines that were important before are still important,” said Pride. “It’s a slippery slope when you start making concessions that you wouldn’t make when you have to actually go out and do something somewhere else so you for your own sake.”
He explained that it’s a weird concept because it doesn’t sound like it matters at first, “but for your own sanity, make your bed, put regular clothes on. As many structured routines as you can add to make you feel normal.”
His earnest advice to students is to take on a project.
“Any dumb thing that you maybe always wanted to do but never make the time for, make the time for it now, and let it be your coronavirus accomplishment. When we deployed, we’d come back and: ‘you didn’t play guitar before,’ ‘oh, that was my Iraq project.’”
Pride stated that there’s a palpable difference in the spiritual healthiness of a person who learned or did something over a deployment or an isolation, and a person who managed to finally crush all seasons of “House of Cards.”
“This person is usually mentally better-off when it’s all said and done, because if you’re not careful, this can be what it is — if you let it, it doesn’t have to be — but it’s very easy for you to let this be a time of your life that just goes up in smoke,” said Pride. “So you have to pick something with all that time you have on your hands and accomplish it. If it’s something you can point to or be proud of or a skill you can use in your future, now is the time to do it.”
As of now, access to the VRC Zoom virtual office is controlled, and contact information can be found on the VRC page.
“Everyone’s welcome, by all means,” said Pride. “Even if they just want to talk to somebody that knows how to be locked up for a minute, that’s just fine too.”