Texas A&M University senior biology major Kassie Ruocco '16 doesn't serve in the military. She doesn't even come from a military family. But helping veterans is a passion to which she's fully devoted.
Ruocco is the vice president of Aggie Shields, a student-led organization committed to serving student veterans and helping them assimilate into campus life. Throughout the year, the Katy native can be found organizing and volunteering at the various fundraisers and special events hosted by Aggie Shields, all of which aim to support Aggie veterans as they obtain a college education.
"There's so much that needs to be done to not only help, but also simply support our veterans," Ruocco said. "I'm just trying to work really hard to make the little differences that I can."
Texas A&M has two offices dedicated to the support of all military-affiliated students—the Veteran Services Office (VSO) and the Veteran Resource and Support Center (VRSC). In addition, the university ranks first in the nation for providing services to veterans in transitioning into civilian careers after their military service, according to the online service College Factual.
Ruocco says the moment that ignited her desire to assist veterans is forever etched in her memory. It was the night Ruocco, at the time only a freshman at Blinn College with a part-time waitressing job, offered to give her restaurant's cook a ride home. During the drive, she got to know him on a more personal level and learned he was facing a string of hardships. For instance, he needed to see a dentist, but his insurance wouldn't cover the expenses, and he frequently had to choose which bills to pay and which to put off until the next paycheck.
He was also a veteran.
"I just thought, 'Oh my goodness, you fought for our country, and you actually have to deal with these issues?'" Ruocco said. "I knew I wanted to do something, even if it was on my own, to make some kind of difference. Right then is when the spark in me started."
One of Ruocco's first priorities when she transferred to Texas A&M and the Department of Biology in 2014 was to find a military-affiliated student group to join. She discovered Aggie Shields one day in the Memorial Student Center (MSC) after being handed a related flier. Intrigued by their mission to serve Aggie veterans, Ruocco signed up, ultimately becoming one of the founding members.
Since their formation, one of Aggie Shields' most impactful undertakings has been the establishment of their Lending Library, which alleviates the financial burden of purchasing textbooks by allowing student veterans to rent them free of charge for an entire semester.
"Most student veterans are here on benefits, and they receive stipends for textbooks," Ruocco said. "While any kind of help they can get is nice, it's really a small amount of money. The Lending Library is there to help with that."
To ensure that their Lending Library is continually stocked, Aggie Shields hosts a textbook drive in the MSC at the end of each semester during finals week. Textbooks from every subject are accepted, then logged into a database and sent to the Lending Library located in the John J. Koldus Building within the VRSC, where they will await checkout in subsequent semesters.
Ruocco estimates that since the creation of the Lending Library, Aggie Shields has acquired nearly 1,000 textbooks, a number that increases each semester as word of their cause continues to spread.
"It's slowly but surely getting bigger and bigger," she said.
Ruocco is equally diligent when it comes to her academics. When she's not in class or immersed in Aggie Shields-related duties, Ruocco can be found in Texas A&M biologist Ginger Carney's laboratory, where she studies metabolic pathways in fruit flies.
While it's the Aggie veterans who primarily benefit from Ruocco's extracurricular efforts, Ruocco considers herself equally fortunate, thanks to her decision to attend Texas A&M. She says it's a choice that has enabled her to flourish academically through hands-on research experiences and also to grow as a person through service-oriented student organizations like Aggie Shields.
"Once I got to learn a lot more about Texas A&M, its core values and everything it stands for and how Texas A&M plays a role in our country and internationally, too, I was all the more grateful that I chose to come here," she said.
Watch a brief YouTube interview with Kassie Ruocco '16 in which she talks about her work with Aggie Shields and what it means to her to be helping student veterans at Texas A&M:
For additional information on undergraduate research opportunities in the Texas A&M College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/research/undergraduate/index.php.
This article was originally published by the College of Science.
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