Student veterans unite over football

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Event coordinator for the Student Veterans Association Tania Nesser and nutrition senior Amanda Lavers play cornhole at the SVA tailgate Saturday afternoon. Jumbo janga was another popular game that was played at the tailgating event. 

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

This past Saturday, a group of student veterans enjoyed an afternoon at the Student Veterans Association tailgate. In the burnt orange blur of pre-game festivities, these Longhorns blended in with the rest of the crowd despite the fact they’re actually quite rare. There are approximately 750 veterans studying at UT. Stephen Ollar, SVA president and economics senior, said there were only two veterans in this year’s incoming freshman class of over 8,000, which means that the number of veterans on campus is, at least for now, staying small.

Small, however, doesn’t necessarily mean close-knit. UT doesn’t “flag” students as veterans in the same way that it doesn’t list students’ hometown or ethnicity in the directory. This makes it difficult for veterans at UT to identify each other. Ollar said he has “sporadically met a few” ex-military students in his classes but that “a lot of veterans don’t identify themselves as such.” Organizations like the SVA, which seeks to support veterans and the dependents of veterans in the UT community, play a crucial role in helping veterans find a community at the 40 Acres.

Members of the SVA community, including Ollar and government and history senior Steven Denman, claimed a small patch of grass just north of the stadium for their tailgate.

Before coming to UT, Ollar and Denman were both stationed with the Army in Ft. Richardson, Alaska. Now they are both working toward law school. Denman, originally from Michigan, said he chose to come to UT after leaving the Army because of Austin’s warm weather — and because he felt that the “pro-liberal” Austin culture would give him the “perspective of the left, the middle and the right” that the military lacked.

Ollar, in contrast, is a lifelong Texan and a second-time UT student. Ollar was born and raised in Midlothian, a small town outside of Dallas. After earning a cell and molecular biology degree from UT, he joined the Army. Now he is back at UT to earn an economics degree after finding that “there’s not a lot of options available for veterans.” 

As they drank and talked, the two men revealed the difficulties of rejoining civilian life as a student. The social life of a student veteran, Ollar said, can be “lonely — an uphill battle.”

“You leave your whole life,” Ollar said. “The Army buys you a ticket and you start your life over again.”

The traditional social scenes at UT are also largely closed off to veterans. Though Ollar said that some student veterans join organizations like pre-professional fraternities or educational clubs, they don’t always feel welcome. 

But for many of UT’s student veterans, the same life experience that hinders their integration into student life influences their academic pursuits. Middle Eastern studies senior Christi Crews joined the Navy at 18 after the emotional turmoil of her first love being killed in Iraq. After leaving the Navy, she “decided to educate [herself] about the Middle East instead.”

In the Middle Eastern studies program at UT, Crews has “learned to love and appreciate the [Middle Eastern] culture for what it is … and to negotiate and find middle ground and common interests with people who have different opinions.” Crews says she hasn’t had trouble making friends at UT but admits that she doesn’t “fit into that 18, 19, 20-year-old student category.”

Looking around the tailgate, Crews said most of her friends are from the SVA.

The SVA holds tailgates for every home game and Ollar said about 80 people attended the event throughout the day. Although most attendees are veterans or their acquaintances, Ollar said, “If you love a vet, you’re welcome [to attend].”

Printed on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 as: UT vets unite for football fun