At first glance, the OASIS at Tunxis Community College seems like a typical college lounge. Sounds of laughter and the smell of freshly brewed coffee fill the air. Young adults in hoodies snack and chat in the small kitchen and lounge on the oversized couch in the adjoining living room, the way typical college students would chill out between classes.
But this isn’t an ordinary student lounge, and the students who fill it aren’t ordinary students. The OASIS, which stands for Operation Academic Support for Incoming Service Members, was established at Tunxis in 2008 to “support returning veterans who are transitioning back to civilian life and trying to better their education.”
With a purpose like that, it’s no wonder the Farmington Community Chest (FCC) decided to support the OASIS—especially since the program is so consistent with the mission of the FCC (to improve the health, educational opportunities and life of the community).
Karen DeBari is an English professor at Tunxis who runs the OASIS. She got involved with it because she saw veteran students struggling to keep up in class. “I saw a need,” said DeBari. “I saw the veterans in my class struggling, trying to adapt. They would gravitate toward each other in class. I sensed they needed a special place to spend time together.”
Fortunately, the state of Connecticut recognized this need as well, and in 2007, special spaces were created in the state’s public colleges and universities so that veterans transitioning to academic life could have a place to hang out.
The OASIS at Tunxis started as one room and not much else. DeBari sensed that the students needed more than just a place to hang out. She saw that many were struggling financially and emotionally. “I started bringing in sandwiches from home and asked my friends and the other teachers to donate whatever they could,” said DeBari.
Soon after, she connected with the FCC, which has contributed monthly to the OASIS ever since. The lounge grew to what is now three connected rooms: a meeting/study room with computers, a small kitchen stocked with drinks and snacks, and a living room with a large TV. Photos, newspaper clippings and U.S. and military flags hang on every wall.
“There are about 200 veterans on campus, and the OASIS gets about 20 visitors a day,” DeBari says. “As anyone who has shopped for a family knows, that means a lot of grocery shopping.” She estimates she spends about $150 a week to stock the kitchen.
While veteran student lounges can now be found in public colleges throughout Connecticut, those who hang out at the Tunxis OASIS have made it into a center with a broader mission—they have turned the center into a home. They have become a family.
“The veterans tell me how important the OASIS is and has been in helping them return from deployment and acclimate to civilian and student life,” says DeBari. “They feel like the OASIS is a place where they belong and are accepted and can speak freely in a judgment-free place.”
Students agree that the OASIS has turned into more than just a place on campus for student veterans. “It is a place to surround myself with people who get me—it’s more like a family,” says a student.
Over the past few years, donations have increased, which has allowed the OASIS to offer more programs and support for the veterans. DeBari organizes on-campus social events for the veterans as well as off-campus activities.
DeBari sees the impact the OASIS has made in so many lives and says that’s what keeps her committed. “I have so many fulfilling stories and proud moments,” she says. “Some are very personal. Graduation is always a very special time. I have veterans who have graduated or moved on to another college and stay in touch. I have attended weddings and baby showers, and those events are always fun and let me know that our veterans can have success stories after the military.”
The impact the OASIS has made in the areas of health, education and community life wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions and support from organizations like FCC. “I run the OASIS solely on private donations, so we are incredibly grateful for organizations like the Farmington Community Chest who support our mission,” said DeBari.
As proud as she is about the OASIS, don’t think for a moment this means DeBari is slowing down. “I’m always talking to our veterans and seeing what is needed with every new group of veterans who start the semester,” she says. “Now we’re working on getting dental care for our veterans.”