Walter Ghant, the new Veteran’s Resource Center director at Portland State, wants to bring fresh ideas and inclusivity to the VRC.
A United States Air Force veteran and self-described “lifelong learner,” Ghant began his role as VRC director in fall of 2019 and has since brought his goals for creating a stable resource center and fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment. Students can find the VRC as well as Ghant’s office on the fourth floor of the Smith Memorial Student Union building in room 401.
“PSU was founded as an extension college for veterans following World War II,” Ghant said in an interview about the university’s history. “Most people don’t know that. Culture and society shifted after World War II into the ‘50s and the ‘60s. The background kind of got pushed aside for PSU just because the voices of the anti-military [protests] were larger than the presence of veterans on the campus.”
Joseph Brower, a computer science major, spoke of his own experience at the VRC, having utilized the center since 2017. “There was a great sense of community there and a good sense of involvement between all the students,” Brower said. “[Sometimes] it seemed to be too tight-knit of a community and didn’t reach out to most of the other veterans. Then it went through a phase of just being just messed with and kind of fell apart. There was minimal interaction and involvement with students, even staff.”
Under Ghant, the center is aiming to regain a sense of stability that is reflective of the VRC’s vision statement: “to cultivate an environment within the VRC that is inclusive and engaging for student veterans, active duty members, dependents, women, non-veterans, LGBTQ and people of various racial/ethnic compositions and abilities.”
Ghant himself is a Portland native, born at Emanuel Hospital—now called Legacy hospital—and has deep roots in the community: “I [am] a part of a family of African-Americans who occupied Mississippi, Alberta and Williams Avenue, pre-gentrification.” Enlisting in the United States Air Force in 1984 as a communications specialist in crypto-analysis—analyzing and decoding encrypted messages—he served one four-year enlistment before his honorable discharge from the military.
“I ended up going in a different direction, more in the area of philosophy and faith and that kind of thing,” Ghant said speaking of his time after military service. “I became more idealistic on what I wanted to do with my life as opposed to just business. I wanted to find a purpose for life so I chose that as opposed to the private sector.”
He later moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University, where he earned a master’s degree. “I ended up staying in the D.C. area for 25 years,” Ghant said. “[I] did a combination of work with the government, [and] doing a lot of consulting around community development. [I] worked in higher [education] for about fifteen years as well.”
Returning home to Portland, Ghant worked in a similar leadership position before the VRC director at PSU: “I was at the Portland Community College for two years in a similar position [working at] both student conduct and the Veterans Resource Center, which was very interesting work,” Ghant said.
Transitioning to PSU, Ghant noted a distinct difference between the institutions. “We have more resources at PSU for this position,” Ghant said. “Which then provides for the possibility of an expansion in terms of both programming and additional professional staff.”
“Part of my reasoning is that we have a lot more veterans here, roughly 800, so there’s a larger need that exists here,” Ghant said of his impetus for moving to PSU. “It was the next step of working with veterans to be at a director level.”
As a veteran, Ghant also understands the difficulty in transitioning from military to civilian life: “There are a lot more resources available for veterans to successfully transition, but unless they know what those resources are then a lot of time veterans just go in alone.”
After a period of instability and a lack of leadership in the VRC, Ghant established three defined goals to overcome these issues. The first goal is to ensure a continued sense of stability in the center for those who use it.
Ghant’s second goal is for the VRC to stand as a place of inclusivity. For Ghant, the best way to do this is to show the community that veterans are just like everybody else.
“Most people don’t really know the depth of experience that military veterans have,” Ghant said. “There can be this perception of veterans that is monolithic and we’re not at all. We are very diverse across identities. I want to make sure that the PSU community is well represented in this space that is not just for veterans, but for any student.”
The third goal Ghant discussed is identifying additional revenue to ensure the success of student veterans and events hosted by the VRC such as the open bowling nights held from 5–7 pm in the SMSU basement every other Thursday.
Since leaving the military, Ghant has earned a bachelor’s and four master’s degrees without acquiring any student debt and he understands money is always a priority for college students. “I found a way to do my education that did not cost me a dime, and I’m happy to share that with people when they ask,” Ghant said. The VRC director is also interested in helping current students earn their degree in the most affordable way possible.
In just a short time as director, Ghant has already hired 12 work-study students and an office specialist who will become part of the VRC staff in the coming weeks, as well as reestablished a student advisory board.
“In addition to that, we’ve done some great collaborations already with the Queer Resource Center and the Women’s Resource Center on different levels,” Ghant said.
In the works is a Peer Advisor for Veteran Education program which will function as a veteran mentorship program and an upgrade to the social media aspect of the center. Isaiah Perez—a communications and computer science major—spoke of how he has helped spread a new message about the community.
“I’ve always had a love for social media and communication, and [I’m] passionate about the VRC,” Perez said. “Walt and I are trying to present ourselves and the veterans of PSU as people that aren’t killers, people that aren’t full of hate. We’re just like everyone.”
Perez also discussed the videos he created to showcase the VRC. “I’ve made four videos, and we are doing one quick video a week updating people about what the VRC is, where [students] can find us, who to ask questions about the resources we have,” Perez said.
Focusing on change, Ghant spoke of his ultimate goal for the VRC. “I would love to make more students—whether they are veteran students or [not]—a part of what we’re doing here. I really think about what we’re doing as a mild movement. A movement for change. Change in perspective and action. I invite all students to be a part of that.”
History of veterans at PSU
The country at the end of World War II found itself reeling from multiple factors: dealing with the horrors of war, the fast approaching end to the industrial boom the war brought and an influx of returning veterans, according to Oregonencyclopedia.org, a project of the Oregon Historical Society.
Stephen Epler—a veteran returning from the war—became a veterans counselor for the Oregon General Extension Division. Epler suggested opening an institution for higher education to accommodate the new veterans and to make use of the government money brought in from the G.I. Bill—a bill approved in 1944 to ensure paid education for veterans who fulfilled their term of service honorably.
Epler’s center became the Vanport Extension Center, opening in 1946 in Vanport City as a temporary educational institution to take the burden off other colleges in the area. The initial class consisted of only 220 students, 94% being veterans. Since its opening, the VEC lauded itself as being open to anyone, however, while the enrollment of women grew from 74 in 1946 to 283 in 1949, minority enrollment increased by only 10 students between 1948 and 1950.
In May of 1948, the Columbia River flood decimated the shipbuilding community, putting nearly 18,000 residents’ homes underwater. The VEC was destroyed in the flood as well, reopening in June of that year at Grant High School for the ensuing summer session. After relocating again, the VEC found a more permanent home in an abandoned Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation building in the St. John’s neighborhood. Oregon legislature passed House Bill 215, making the center an official two-year institution.
After a final transition, the location of the VEC found its permanent residence in Portland’s south Park Blocks in 1952. The center became a four-year institution in 1955, changing its name to Portland State College then finally changing to Portland State University in 1968 following the approval of doctoral programs as a part of the institutions curriculum.
Today, PSU has hundreds of degree programs, covers multiple city blocks and has thousands of enrolled students. The school has multiple resource centers for students of various backgrounds including the VRC.