PHOENIX - After serving eight years with the U.S. Army in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan, Sgt. Carlos Forcadilla returned home seeking a college education but worried about what that experience may hold.
"Leaving the service and coming back is pretty scary at first," he said. "It's a whole other world, as far as sitting in a classroom with a bunch of different kids who are in a different age population."
After spending a semester at a Colorado community college where he found it difficult to connect with other veterans, he moved to Arizona State University and was pleased with the support available.
Members of the ASU Student Veterans Association provided mentoring as he navigated the transfer, showing him how to submit his benefits paperwork and answering questions.
In addition to Arizona universities providing in-state tuition to veterans, ASU has offered Forcadilla access to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs representatives who help process benefits paperwork faster and the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, which provides individualized support.
"That's like the perfect combination right there to help student veterans coming out of the military transition," said Forcadilla, now a senior studying social work.
ASU was the first school in Arizona declared an Arizona Veterans Supportive Campus under a state law that took effect in 2011. The Arizona Department of Veterans Services awards the designation to community colleges and universities that meet a list of requirements.
Northern Arizona University has since earned the status, and the University of Arizona is preparing its application, said Dave Hampton, the public information officer and legislative liaison for the Department of Veterans Services.
"The goal is to certify all institutions of higher learning in the state of Arizona, both public and private, as veteran supportive," Hampton said.
To qualify, institutions must complete steps that include having one-stop resource and study centers for student veterans, forming campus steering committees and offering peer mentoring for veterans.
Gene van den Bosch, former president and CEO of the Arizona Veterans' Education Foundation, helped develop the legislation that created the program after showing lawmakers a comprehensive report suggesting a lack of resources for student veterans.
"Many schools claim to be ‘military-friendly,' but it's meaningless," van den Bosch said. "We fully examined veteran programs throughout the country based on hundreds of conversations with people in academia, the government and corporate sector to see which programs seemed to be working and showed a promise of best practices."
David Lucier, president and CEO of the Arizona Veterans & Military Leadership Alliance, said supportive campuses bring more veterans to Arizona and help them succeed in school.
"I think it's one of the greatest programs having student veteran initiatives on our college campuses," said Lucier, who helped design ASU's program and is president of the ASU Alumni Association's Veterans Chapter. "The next step is to reach out to community colleges."
In August 2011, ASU opened its Pat Tillman Veterans Center to provide student veterans a gathering place and to offer academic support and help with benefits and information. Before that, only two windows at the University Registrar's Office served veterans.
"Beginning all the way with the application process, there's standardized communication that flows from the Tillman Center out to those applicants who indicate they are a veteran," said Capt. Steven Borden, the center's director. "As soon as we know a veteran is interested in coming here, they'll receive a welcome email from the Pat Tillman Veterans Center, letting them know that we're here willing to assist them."
Being certified as an Arizona Veterans Supportive Campus, Borden said, enhances ASU's appeal to veterans.
"We know veterans are out there looking for schools that have services in place to assist them in succeeding," he said.
NAU opened an Office of Military and Veterans Affairs in fall 2010.
"When a veteran walks in the door, they are guaranteed to be greeted by somebody else who has also been in the military," said Lt. Col. Andrew Griffin, NAU's director of Military and Veteran Affairs. "There's that camaraderie in the military that reaches beyond service boundaries."
Griffin said the office also functions as a referral service for off-campus assistance if the university doesn't offer a specific service on campus.
Added to those services, certification as an Arizona Veterans Supportive Campus sends a message to veterans considering the school, Griffin said.
"They're going to do their homework and look for a school that's best for their needs," he said.
UA established Veterans Education and Transition Services and Student Vets Center, which includes a study center and lounge, in August 2008 to address the influx of veterans returning from combat, said Cody Nicholls, the assistant dean of students overseeing the center.
"This is a place for veterans to get away from everything," Nicholls said. "We educate each student veteran about all the different services we provide, including how to navigate educational benefits, financial aid, and access to an on-campus nurse practitioner that enrolls students in the VA health care system."
Last year, a bill by Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, updated the law to require the state Department of Veterans' Services to post on its website a list of schools certified as Arizona Veterans Supportive Campuses and require those schools to report graduation numbers for veterans.
"My position is enrollment is good but graduation is better," Mesnard said. "We want it to actually mean something to be called an Arizona Veterans Supportive Campus."
For Forcadilla, who is president of the ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus Veterans Club, it's important that schools and government officials continue finding ways to support student veterans.
"The key is retention to make sure the transition to civilian-university life is easy," he said.