Creating a Veteran-friendly Campus

When Jillian Richards came to Michigan Tech from the military, she traded discipline for self-discipline, regimen for free time, camaraderie for aloneness. The changes have been “a culture shock,” she says.

A native of Stevensville, Richards, 26, served eight years in the Army. Now she is a junior in civil engineering, and the transition from military to civilian life has been difficult. So much so, she sought counseling for insomnia and questioned whether getting out of the military was the right thing to do. Civilian life is a different world for her.

Consider: In the military, she was told, “This is what you have to learn, and this is how you’re going to learn it.” In college, she must be more self-directed. “We have to relearn how to learn,” she says.

Consider, too: In the military, there is a tight buddy system. “We looked out for each other. We trusted each other. We were brothers and sisters. Here I’m on my own. It’s frustrating.”

Then she stumbled on a fellow veteran at a birthday party. They started talking. “We were both frustrated with classes and other students,” she says. “I vented to him. He was someone who understood.”  The company of a compatriot buoyed her. She’s sleeping better these days and is now the president of the Student Veterans Organization.  The primary goal of the group, which has about 20 regulars, is to find a resource room where veterans can gather to meet, hang out and do homework together. “It would be good for our well-being,” Richards says. “Reaffirm we’re all doing the right thing.”

An estimated 200,000 soldiers a year are leaving the military, some returning home from war. Many will go to college on the GI Bill, which covers eight semesters of tuition, fees and books. (Veterans can transfer these benefits to their children.)  Against this backdrop, efforts are underway to make Michigan Tech a veteran-friendly campus.

It’s a distinct mission: veterans are older, more experienced, more mature, and often are married with families; as well, some are saddled with combat experience and suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Rob Bishop, who is an advisor to the campus veterans group, says he would never have made it through college without a veteran-mentor. He hosted a webinar in late October for the campus; it addressed the needs of student-veterans.

The message: Veterans make good employees, but they don’t know it. They’re focused, reliable, good leaders and adept at teamwork, but they struggle to market themselves. They need to be confident that a leader in Iraq makes a leader in a corporation, that it’s not a big jump to go from being an artillery spotter to a student of physics.

Kathy Pintar, registration coordinator, is the point person who certifies benefits for veterans and monitors their academic progress.  “We, as a campus, have a lot more to learn and do to embrace these veterans,” she says.  She reports that there were 44 veterans on campus in spring 2009; now there are 86, ranging in age from 20 to 50.

Since 2008, Michigan Tech offers in-state tuition to out-of-state students who are the offspring or spouse of a person on active US military duty. Tech is also a “yellow-ribbon school”—a federal designation for a program where Tech commits $2,500, which the government matches, to help offset the tuition of nonresident students. Tech also provides veterans and current military personnel with a National Service Graduate Fellowship—a program initiated by the Graduate School to provide a tuition award to those who have provided service to our country.

Other initiatives are planned:

  • Holding a special session at Orientation to direct veterans to Tech’s wide array of student services, as well as their GI Bill benefits.
  • Steering them to the Veterans Hospital in Iron Mountain and local mental health providers.
  • Encouraging veterans in the larger community to connect with student-veterans.
  • Helping faculty learn to spot veterans who are suffering from PTSD.

Some plans are substantive; some are symbolic: In January, there will be a military appreciation night at a hockey game to recognize all veterans and ROTC cadets. Starting in December, veterans will sport red, white and blue honor cords at commencement, a salute to their service to the country. All of it is not only helpful, it’s good business. Says Bishop: “If we can create a network and an opportunity, we can become a destination for vets.”

Published in Tech Today.