MU Center for Veteran’s Success finds temporary home with engineering
Soldiers returning to civilian lives increasingly find themselves faced with a new foe: unemployment. An economist with the U.S. Department of Labor recently placed the jobless rate for veterans returning stateside from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq at 11.2 percent — one in nine soldiers, or approximately 170,000 men and women — compared to 8.8 percent for non-vets. As a result, military units are easily meeting and exceeding re-enlistment quotas and many veterans are opting to pursue educational opportunities available to them.
The task of enrolling in college can be overwhelming for any first-time student. Maneuvering application and financial aid requirements can be intimidating tasks in and of themselves. Add to that the myriad options available to vets through the current and impending new G.I. Bills, navigating the Veteran’s Administration, timing of deployments and the fact that the transition from military to civilian life can be challenging, so it’s not surprising that many service men and women find the process of college enrollment daunting.
A 2007 task force appointed by MU Chancellor Brady Deaton took a hard look at Mizzou from a veteran’s perspective and in December 2008, the Mizzou Veterans Center opened its doors in Lafferre Hall to create a smooth soldier-to-student transition on the MU campus, and to do everything possible to make veteran students successful. Carol Fleisher, the woman responsible for the formation of a chapter of Students Veterans Association (MSVA) at Mizzou three years ago, serves as interim chair.
“I come from a military family and my husband was in the service, so I have a unique perspective,” said Fleisher. “I know how important it is that vets be in contact with each other to share information,” she said, explaining her motivation for initiating the MSVA chapter. “And now with the Center, we can offer veterans help with enrolling in college, and give them the support they need.”
In addition to helping veterans with admissions and financial aid, the Center serves as a liaison to veteran organizations at all levels and provides access to employment possibilities. First-time students who are feeling uneasy about college have the option of working with a mentor for encouragement.
Students aren’t the only ones to benefit from the formation of the Center. Services are available to faculty and staff with military service records and important networking opportunities, such as the MSVA, are shared with all.
Currently working at the center with Fleisher are Nick Kundert and Kevin Jones, both ex-marines who are attending MU. Kundert is majoring in education to teach secondary school biology and Jones is pursuing business management with a minor in psychology. In addition to their coursework and jobs at the Veteran’s Center, they serve as MSVA’s vice president for internal affairs and vice president for external affairs respectively. In his position, Jones is helping Columbia College set up a chapter of SVA.
As a soldier, Kundert worked in communications, but the equipment his unit used was outdated, so his skill-set didn’t transfer into any sort of job when he was discharged in 2006. He attended school for two years at Meramec Community College and then transferred to MU last fall.
“I like the look and feel of the MU campus. I like it that people are here to learn,” said Kundert. “The teachers are so approachable, but sometimes the classes are large, and that’s not always easy for vets.”
He immediately joined the MSVA. At that time there were only about 60 members, but its ranks have swelled to 250 since the Veteran’s Center opened its doors and began connecting vets. MSVA offers tutoring, mentoring and help with difficult transitions.
Also discharged in 2006, Jones worked as an operations chief and training manager for classified missions for his squad.
“In the military you’re forced to learn, but here you have to figure it out for yourself,” said Jones, addressing one of the major differences between military training and attending college. “Veterans bring something to classes. For one thing, we’re not afraid to ask questions or request clarification,” said Jones.
“Age is a big deal in the transition,” Jones added. “As vets, we’re through with our party years. We still like to have fun but not in the same ways.”
“I’ll get an e-mail from a soldier in Iraq that asks what he or she needs to be doing,” said Fleisher. “I copy Nick on it and he contacts them and tells them what’s available at MU. They’re fighting the war at the same time as they’re planning their lives. A letter from Nick goes a long way,” said Fleisher.
A recently discharged reservist from Kosovo stopped by the Veterans Center saying that he’d been out since February.
“I can go anywhere to school and I’ve looked at a lot of colleges — San Diego State, Penn State, USC — but I have not found a more helpful office than MU’s,” he said of his choice to attend Mizzou.
On his heels is a civil engineering student who has been in the National Guard for a year. He has three semesters left to get his degree and there is some question about whether he will qualify for the Heroes Act. Fleisher thinks they can make it work.
“Bring in every set of orders you have and we’ll get you started. We can get you set up, don’t worry,” she told him.
At the door as soon as he stepped out was a woman looking for information for her nephew. “I heard from other people that you could help me out,” she said.
“They’re taking care of people every day,” the reservist from Kosovo told her. “Thanks guys. I appreciate it,” he said with a wave as he left the office.
“Every veteran has a different story and different needs,” said Fleisher. “We’re here to help them all.”