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Originally published December 30, 2012 at 7:37 PM | Page modified December 31, 2012 at 9:14 AM

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Psychologist helps vets adjust at Tri-Cities schools

A federal grant is paying for a psychologist to work with student veterans at Washington State University, Tri-Cities in Richland and Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

Tri-City Herald

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Steven Malone says the life of a student can be very different from the life of a soldier.

Studying is a solitary pursuit, while the military tends to focus on a team approach, he said. There is no rank or structure in the classroom — it's up to the student to get the work done.

"A professor is really not going to care if you turn in a paper or not," said Malone, a psychologist working with student veterans at Washington State University, Tri-Cities in Richland and Columbia Basin College (CBC) in Pasco.

Those stark differences, combined with the other demands and stresses of civilian life, can make it difficult for some veterans to succeed in higher education, according to education and veterans officials.

And that's why Malone was brought to the Tri-Cities — to help student veterans succeed and ensure they know about the support network available to them.

"They're in a very different place from other students," said Peggy Buchmiller, associate dean of student progress and support services at CBC.

Malone's position is paid for by a Veterans Integration To Academic Leadership, or VITAL, grant from the central office of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Officials at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla sought the grant to serve veterans looking to continue their education.

Janice Kusch, the grant's manager based out of the VA's Richland community-based outpatient clinic, said the grant is part of an initiative to create partnerships between the VA and higher-education institutions. Thirteen grants have been provided so far, with the one in the Tri-Cities the only one in the Northwest.

"Our proposal was selected because CBC and WSU are already committed to veteran campus programming," Kusch said. The schools have about 450 student veterans combined.

The grant allows individual VA hospitals to hire one to two people, such as a psychologist or social worker, to be stationed at a campus and work with student veterans, helping them with academic or personal struggles and referring them to other services, either at the school or VA, if needed.

Malone arrived in the Tri-Cities about two months ago, having previously worked at the VA hospital in Portland but more recently in private practice. He said student veterans often have a lot of similarities to other nontraditional students, as many are the first in their family to pursue higher education and often are caring for a family and holding down a job when they are enrolled.

But their military background does set them apart. Malone said some student veterans are dealing with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, or traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

Many student veterans have great skill sets, including perseverance and confidence, but they have to learn to translate these skills into the civilian world, he said.

"The whole point of this grant is to help them adjust," he said.

Malone said he sees about 10 clients a week during his office hours at WSU-Tri-Cities and CBC. Many come seeking help with academic struggles, as well as struggles in their personal lives.

Malone's services are part of the VA, so the student veterans receive his counseling free of charge. Also, he helps to improve accessibility to other VA services, Kusch said.

Malone and VA officials said part of their difficulty is persuading student veterans to visit Malone's office if they need help. There is a stigma among some in the military about getting guidance, particularly with personal issues, and it's a constant effort to get out the message that it's OK to ask for help.

"That's part of the transition to the civilian world," Malone said.

It's unclear how long the grant dollars will be available. Kusch said the future of the local program will depend on its results, although she's already fielding requests from other institutions asking for similar VA staffers for their campuses.

"We would love to have expansion," she said.

In the meantime, Malone said he's enjoying seeing the progress he's made. Many who've sought his help have turned around their academics or resolved other problems and are now sending other student veterans to his office.

"These veterans served our country well, and anything we can do to help them is worth it," he said.

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