Each year, the people of the United States honor military men and women on two days – Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. For Erika Gamboa ’06, director of the Veterans Information and Resource Center at the University of Arkansas, every day is Veteran’s Day. As an Army Reserves veteran, she dedicates her time to helping veterans and their dependents apply for school and receive a college degree.
At 12 years old, Gamboa knew she wanted to join the military, saying, “I went to meet with a recruiter when I was 17. When I told my mom, she immediately said no. When I told my dad, he asked if I was sure it was something I wanted to do.” She joined during the time of Desert Storm and although she did not see combat, her time spent in the military has enabled her to find common ground with those who enter her office each day.
Working in higher education, she admits it wasn’t until she entered the program at the University of Arkansas that she realized her passion. While pursuing a master’s degree, she grew to admire three professors, Dr. Lyle Gohn, Dr. Michael Miller and Dr. Christopher Lucas, all of whom became her mentors. “They see the qualities you often don’t see in yourself,” she said. As a single mother, much of her time was dedicated to school work and taking care of her daughter; however, she did receive a graduate assistantship at University Housing.
Later, she became the academic coordinator of the Veterans Upward Bound program. According to the pamphlet, the program “is here to guide you through the challenges of entering and succeeding in college.” Gamboa praised the program for its ability to provide military personnel with the tools needed to prepare for college. Some of the services that the Veterans Upward Bound program provides are a two-hour consultation that will determine the student’s academic capabilities, books, supplies and a stipend for gas, all of which are free of charge.
The experience she gained in the program led her to accept the position of Director of the Veterans Information and Resource Center (VRIC). As the point of contact for veterans and their dependents, Gamboa and her staff provide guidance and insight into finances, benefits, class schedules and the application process. “I create a checklist for each student. When we talk about benefits, when they served and for how long usually determines how much money they will receive. We also look at external benefits, including scholarships and personal needs such as daycare for their children,” she said.
Her dedication to helping veterans extends beyond office walls. Gamboa also co-teaches a course with Dr. Danette Heckathorn called “From Boots to Books: Healthy Transitions for Military Personnel.” According to the class description, “The curriculum integrates a network of campus resources, guest presentations, student research and writing, and discussion sessions.”
Helping student veterans become acclimated within the classroom is important; however, Gamboa works hard to make sure they are integrated and informed outside the classroom as well. In 2011, the VRIC coordinated the first Veteran’s Week Celebration, which included a veteran’s resource fair, guest speaker Gen. Wesley Clark and recognition of the Pat Tillman scholars. On Veteran’s Day, staff, ROTC members and students read the names of fallen soldiers who died during Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
Becoming emotional, Gamboa said, “I guess there was a campus tour going on and people just stopped. Suddenly I noticed this man stepped forward and he saluted…he was a Vietnam vet.” Another instance included a student walking by wearing a military jacket. “He asked if there was an open time slot. I told him there was but it was in two hours and he told me he would be back. When he came back, he was wearing his full uniform to read the names.”
While Gamboa enjoys the work she does with veterans on campus, as a member of the Arkansas Alumni Association, she devotes much of her time to the Association’s Latino Alumni Society. “I was one of the first two Latinas in the higher education program here on campus,” she said. With very few Latino organizations on campus, Gamboa became involved with the Hispanic Heritage Month Planning Committee. Organizing a campus day, the group helped to bring area high school students to campus, with the intention of showing them a place that could be a part of their future.
Years later, after talking to various friends, an interest was shown in starting a Latino Society. “Angela Monts was our angel. She really helped us through this…the Association supported us and opened its doors without question. They showed us what we needed to do so we didn’t have barriers along the way.”
Since the formation of the Latino Alumni Society, the group consists of Bolivians, Colombians, Mexicans, Brazilians and other diverse backgrounds. “We want to be the communication between young Latino students, saying, ‘You’re welcome here.’ We want to keep the community connected and encourage Latino students who may not see the University of Arkansas as a possibility in their future,” she said.
On April 27, the Latino Alumni Society will host its second annual “La Pachanga.” This year’s event will be special because the Society will receive its official charter as well. In an effort to raise money for scholarships for future Latino students, Gamboa encourages all Association members to join and attend.
“Being a part of the Alumni Association has given me a sense of pride. They think about the students before they become alumni…by being a part of the Association and the Latino Alumni Society, this is my way of giving back.”