Florida Student Veterans to Battle for In-State Tuition

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida's soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida’s soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

From Gov. Rick Scott to local lawmakers, elected officials love to brag that Florida is “the most veteran friendly state” in the nation.

Many student veterans believe it’s time the politicians prove it and give out-of-state student veterans tuition waivers so they can pay significantly cheaper, in-state tuition rates while attending Florida universities, colleges and trade schools.

More than a dozen other states give all student veterans in-state tuition rates regardless of their state of origin.

“In Texas, all veterans get in-state tuition so I guess it was something I never really thought about,” said Kelly Matisi, a 9-year Marine Corps veteran who transferred to the University of South Florida with the goal of getting into the physical therapy doctoral program.

A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Matisi was surprised to find that Florida did not offer student veterans in-state tuition rates. And it hit her pocketbook hard. Her tuition soared from $1,300 a semester to more than $8,500 when she transferred from a Texas university.

Matisi is not alone. A legislative analysis shows that more than 500 undergraduate and graduate student veterans paid out-of-state tuition rates totaling more than $8 million to Florida universities. Florida community colleges received more than $1 million from out-of-state student veterans.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

“I work in the Office of Veteran Services. We’ve gotten calls from veterans asking that very question: ‘Do you guys give in-state tuition to veterans?’ And I have to tell them no.” Matisi said.

She said without the waiver it’s almost like Florida is turning its back on those who have served.

“We didn’t serve the State of Florida. We didn’t serve the State of Texas. We served the United States,” Matisi said. “So, we kind of feel like picking and choosing who gets a certain amount of tuition and who doesn’t based on where you enlisted, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

One thing the student veterans have going for them is their training. They come from a culture that never says quit. That’s the attitude Ray Mollison, president of the USF Student Veterans Association, adopted when the in-state tuition bill died in a senate committee last session.

“We do have a huge veteran population,” Mollison said last summer. “So, it’s going to bring a big voice next time when this bill does go up there again. And I think there’s going to be a lot more pull and a lot more active people trying to make this happen because the State of Florida has a lot of veterans.”

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

And student veterans’ “big voice” is already being heard. House Speaker Will Weatherford was already predicting passage of the tuition waiver for out-of-state student veterans.

“I think it’s important that we give our veterans the opportunity to go back to school to get the education that they need in the 21st century to make sure they can find employment. These are men and women who have served our country admirably across the country and across the world. And we owe that to them and I feel very confident that we’ll get a bill done like that this year,” Weatherford said in December.

But just in case, Matisia plans to join other student veterans for a trip to Tallahassee in February to lobby lawmakers for passage of (Senate Bill)SB 84 or the House version, (Proposed Committee Bill)PCB 14-01.

You can listen to the radio version of this story at WUSF News.

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Student Veteran Calls for Action in Huffington Post Article

kiersten_3800_miles_for_stu_vetsUniversity of South Florida doctoral student and Air Force veteran Kiersten Downs cycled across the United States this summer to raise visibility for student veterans. And even though her wheels stopped turning August 5th when she arrived in Washington D.C., it doesn’t mean her campaign has ended.

Instead, her “Bike America: Student Veterans Ride for Education” is gaining more national attention. Kiersten just wrote a piece for the Huffington Post:

I am devoted to this cause because I see student veteran organizations as vehicles of social change. Public policy is supposed to be influenced by public discourse, and yet veterans themselves are on the sidelines.

We cannot be passive.

A national discussion is unfolding about who we are, what we need to succeed, and how our past experiences shape our futures. But we must never forget: We are the narrators of our own history. If we do not take control over how the story is written, then it will be written for us, and like in so many cases, work against us.

Kiersten’s journey also was chronicled by MTV-U and was covered by various media outlets. You can read her full Huffington Post article, We Are the Narrators of Our Own History, here.

Kiersten Downs celebrating the end of her two-month ride across the USA to raise awareness for student veterans. Photo credit: Biking USA

Kiersten Downs celebrating the end of her two-month ride across the USA to raise awareness for student veterans. Photo credit: Biking USA

No In-State Tuition Waivers for Florida Student Veterans, Yet

student_vetAmong the handful of veterans’ bills considered by Florida lawmakers this year was legislation that would have granted in-state tuition rates to all veterans using the Post 9-11 G-I Bill.

The lower, in-state tuition waiver was a top priority for Florida student veterans.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena sponsored the House bill.

“The senate wouldn’t hear it,” Peters said. “I’m extremely disappointed about it. The veterans’ organizations are upset about it. The veterans’ school organizations are upset about it.”

Peters has two theories why in-state tuition for student veterans failed. She thinks her bill was hurt when it was combined with a committee bill. Also, she said concerns about cost could have killed it.

“My personal belief, the House’s belief was that waiver that fiscal impact is something we shouldn’t be concerned about and we should make sure our veterans have the opportunity to come to Florida.” Peters said.

Only about a dozen states have enacted laws to make sure GI Bill students don’t get charged out-of-state tuition. But the benefit is becoming a draw as more young men and women leave the military and begin using their GI Bill education benefits..

“They (student veterans) will definitely go to places like Texas, Virginia that have those opportunities for them,” said Ray Mollison, an Army veteran and president of the University of South Florida Student Veterans Association.

Mollison grew up in Florida so in-state tuition is not an issue for him, but it is for many of his colleagues.

“It’s definitely a setback,” Mollison said. “It kind of surprised us all, but there has been steady progress that has been made with the bill.”

He’s confident that instate tuition for vets will pass next year. He plans to rally the 1700 veterans at the USF Tampa campus and others to “bring a big voice” to be heard next time in Tallahassee.

Rep. Peters is optimistic about next year too.

“I will ask the speaker to leave it as a stand-alone bill,” Peters said. “Florida is the most veteran friendly state in the country and we have to keep working to make it even stronger and better.”

Some Veterans Minimize Their Military Service on Resumes

The red-white-and blue honor cords that graduating student veterans will wear on their gowns.

The red-white-and blue honor cords that graduating student veterans will wear on their gowns.

About 150 University of South Florida graduates this May will wear a red-white-and-blue cord on their gowns as they pick up their diplomas. The cord signifies their service as a military veteran.

The graduates are transitioning into a civilian world where Post 9/11 veterans have a higher unemployment rate than the national average. And some veterans feel their military service is counted against them when they apply for jobs.

“They were telling me nobody wants to hire us and that’s really not true,” said Kelly Myers, a Chase 1st vice president and district manager. He meets occasionally with student veterans at the USF Office of Veteran Services. “I know as a company Chase is very interested in veterans for a lot of different reasons.”

Myers said as employees veterans bring a strong work ethic and an ability to work in teams.

“Several of the vets had taken the fact that they were in the military off their resume and they said it really hasn’t served us well,” Myers said. “I said for me I would put it right back on there. It’s probably the strongest recommendation to catch my eye that you are a veteran. So, you’re one of the first people I want to interview.”

Air Force veteran and graduating senior "Fit" Mangasha (left) shakes hands with Larry Braue, director of the USF Office of Veteran Services.

Air Force veteran and graduating senior “Fit” Mangasha (left) shakes hands with Larry Braue, director of the USF Office of Veteran Services.

Air Force veteran and USF graduating senior Fitawrari Mangasha is optimistic about his field in information technology.

“I have a couple of prospects,” Mangasha said. “Things are looking very positive on the job prospects for me.”

Aisha McCloud Hepburn, USF graduating senior and 9-year Army veteran, said she returned to finish her communications degree because of the help she was offered through the USF Office of Veteran Services.

“I really didn’t feel a part of USF until I went to the Veterans Services with Dr. (Larry)Braue,” Hepburn said. “That’s when I realized how important it was for veterans to get an education. And the classes that he gives for veterans here is really a big help.”

A veteran salutes during the national anthem at the USF baseball game where graduating student veterans celebrated their success.

A veteran salutes during the national anthem at the USF baseball game where graduating student veterans celebrated their success.

Larry Braue, a retired Army colonel with a PhD, has overseen USF’s Veteran Services for three years.

“This has been a good year in that we’re getting a lot of people interested in mentoring our veterans, working with them, hiring them,” Braue said. “And I see nothing but good things happening this next year as a result of the changes that we’ve had.”

The office has to started an awareness campaign to educate USF faculty, staff and employees about the veterans experience transitioning back into school. And there’s a mentoring program that pairs student veterans with leaders within the community.

War Veterans “Welcome Home” Event at Tampa’s USF

It’s the Tampa Bay area’s Fourth Annual “Welcome Home America’s Heroes” celebration for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars offering entertainment, giveaways and helpful health and benefits information.

U.S. Soldiers assigned to Bravo Company, 2nd Infantry Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, patrol through the streets of Abu Ghraib, Iraq, May 7, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kani Ronningen/Released)

Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital is hosting the celebration for Florida’s active-duty military members and veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The VA estimates that more than 10,000 veterans from the area have served in the Global War on Terror. They and their family members are invited to the event that also includes free health screenings, information on employment and veterans’ benefits. It’s part of an outreach campaign to assure Florida’s returning veterans are aware of and receive the services and health care they’ve earned.

The event is scheduled at the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, MLK Plaza, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Military members also will have the oppportunity to meet with representatives from the VA, state and community organizations such as the University of South Florida Veterans’ Association, VetSuccess and the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs officals.

Japan, Veteran Benefits, Purple Hearts and a Golf Classic

Getting to know passionate and knowledgable people is among the many positives of this blog. Below are bits of their shared expertise and information that could prove helpful.

For Florida Veterans – From a 22-year Army veteran who prefers to remain in the background, two links for Florida veterans: VAwatchdogtoday.org and the American Legion Department of Florida.

An Airman from the 35th Logistics Readiness Squadron offloads a pallet of supplies from a C-17 Globemaster III March 15, 2011, at Misawa Air Base, Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Marie Brown)

USAF in Japan – The Air Force has created a new, website focused on U.S. Air Force relief efforts for Japan. It’s a one-stop resource with features articles, links, captioned-photos, and video stories and soon daily fact-sheets.

Tax Credit Ending – Contributor and orginator of the My Last Tour Series, Air Force SMSgt. Rex Temple, sends this link and reminder that the Veterans Tax Credit is scheduled to end soon. Veterans who served overseas in the past two years are probably eligible for an $8,000 tax credit when purchasing a home. Under the extension passed late last year by Congress, a contract must be signed by April 30, 2011, but applicants have until June 30, 2011 to close the deal. Check with professional tax preparers on your eligibility. For tips and important military tax information, visit here.

Military Bloggers in JapanMilblogging.com is aggregating military blogs being written from Japan that are covering the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The newest military blog is written by an airman stationed at Misawa AB who goes by the name of Scotty D: I’m big in Japan.  (hat tip-From my position on the way) On Living Overseas and My Life in General is a military spouse blog written by a Navy wife named Nancy.  In her latest post, she writes about what the earthquake has taught her. 

Army Clarifies Purple Heart Rules – A report from National Public Radio journalists Daniel Swerdling and T. Christian Miller. “Acknowledging that commanders have sometimes wrongly denied the Purple Heart to soldiers who suffered battlefield concussions, the Army plans to issue new guidance to clarify when such recognition is warranted, Army officials said Wednesday. In addition, the Army is planning to prioritize appeals from brain-injured soldiers who feel they should not have been turned down for the medal, a hallowed military honor that recognizes those injured in combat.”

And here’s the USA Today article on the same topic. A tip of the hat to Steve G.

Veterans on the Green – The University of South Florida Student Veterans Association is holding a Golf Classic at USF’s golf course, The Claw. It’s scheduled Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The fee is $75 per golfer and includes a shirt, golf cart, greens fees and dinner. For details, email vetserve@cchd.usf.edu or call 813-974-1725.

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