‘Exactly what I needed’: Winthrop among best choices for student veterans

Rock Hill's Winthrop ranked as one of 'top universities' for student veterans

U.S. News and World Report ranked Winthrop University number 19 on the list of top universities for student veterans in the 2017 edition of "America's Best Colleges." Winthrop also ranked 8th among top Southern public universities. Organizations s
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U.S. News and World Report ranked Winthrop University number 19 on the list of top universities for student veterans in the 2017 edition of "America's Best Colleges." Winthrop also ranked 8th among top Southern public universities. Organizations s

Homework can be stressful enough for the typical college student.

Tackling a 10-page paper during the heart of midterms is a lot trickier when you’re also planning to serve your country overseas.

“It’s been a unique ride,” said Berlin ‘D.J.’ Gipson.

Gipson is an active member of the U.S. Navy Reserve who’s looking to graduate in May with a degree in sociology. He’s also one of 114 self-identified student veterans, active duty or reserve personnel at Winthrop University who have benefited from several school initiatives to help student veterans study while adapting back to civilian life.

And now, the Rock Hill school is receiving national recognition for its efforts.

Winthrop was ranked the 19th best university in the South for veterans, according to the 2017 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges.”

The rankings are determined by a series of data that includes whether the school helps students use GI Bill benefits and charges in-state tuition to all out-of-state veterans.

The school rose from No. 21 last year to No. 19 in Tuesday’s rankings. Student veterans and school officials both credited the creation of the Military, Adult and Transfer Services (MATS) office in Dinkins Student Center that helps to serve students through their college careers.

Gipson said he was most grateful to his professors, who he said often allowed him to take exams early, turn in assignments late and gave him plenty of opportunities to get up to speed with his classmates. His teachers helped him get back into the mix after a two-week exercise stint overseas in late February-early March, just as several important tests were being administered.

Gipson said he knew of National Guard service members and school friends who were called to help with relief after last summer’s severe flooding near Columbia.

“The professors are more hands-on and able to help you,” said Gipson, 25. “They’re always available to help out, and thankfully we’re able to get a lot of credit for our tours.”

Tyler Crane, a 26-year-old family man who has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Winthrop was a “superior choice.” He was able to receive a bulk of mandatory cultural event credits through his tours, which helps him focus on his work.

Crane, a computer science major who hopes to graduate in May, says employees are often impressed by the Winthrop brand. He said it was difficult to assimilate back into civilian life after returning from the Middle East in 2010, but found companionship and support at Winthrop’s Student Veterans center, located in Bancroft Hall on campus.

The club often acts as a hang-out zone for several students throughout the day, according to Gipson, who acts as its president.

“Having other veterans there in an educational environment, it made it easier for me,” said Crane. “I had a lot of trepidation when I first came, not being like the others, but having other veterans around, who knew what I was going through was exactly what I needed.”

Winthrop students work through a coordinator to make sure they’re able to use their GI Bill benefits to pay for tuition, books and other services, according to Katie Sardelli, director of the MATS office. For those who need the services, Sardelli said Winthrop’s health services are available for any student veteran who is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The school also has ties to veterans centers in Columbia and Charlotte.

The university has recently designated “Purple Heart” parking spaces across campus that are designed to help wounded veterans park closer to buildings.

Sardelli said the recognition comes from a campus-wide effort to welcome and help student veterans. She noted a “collaborative effort” to help enroll and maintain strong relationships with those in and out of active duty.

Winthrop also maintained its spot among the top 10 best Southern public universities, according to the latest rankings. The school has made the regional list as far back as 2001, and has appeared in the U.S. News & World report for each of the past 25 years.

“It always pleases me to see veterans walk across the stage,” said Sardelli. “The environment of Winthrop is such that people know your name, you’re not just a number. It resonates well with our veterans.”

David Thackham: 803-329-4066, @dthackham