Boots on the ground

Boots on the ground

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UI services, support help military veterans transition to college
Adam ConnellAdam Connell has found programs at the UI to help make his transition from military to student life easier financially, academically, and socially. Photo by Tim Schoon.

As a petty officer second class in the Navy, it was Adam Connell’s job to successfully board ships being used for arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and other nefarious activities in South America and the Persian Gulf.

To get from his frigate to a 200,000-ton supertanker commandeered by pirates and other bad guys took telescopic hook ladders, precision timing, and lots of nerve, especially since the ships were sometimes traveling abreast at speeds of 25 knots.

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But the distance Connell had to travel from ship to ship pales in comparison to the cultural gap he’s had to bridge transitioning from almost five years of military life to campus life as a nursing student at the University of Iowa.

Connell, a sophomore working on his Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, says that soon after enrolling at Iowa in fall 2010 under the Navy’s Medical Enlisted Commissioning Program he found himself adrift. He missed the structure and fellowship of military life and tried to find his place in classes populated by 18- and 19-year-old civilians.

“We didn’t have anything in common,” says Connell, 25.

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Fortunately, he discovered a range of services at the UI designed to make the transition to college for veterans a bit easier financially, academically, and even socially.

Connell enrolled in the first-ever meeting of the College of Education class “Life After War: Post-Deployment Issues,” designed exclusively to help veterans examine their military experiences while honing study skills, like managing test anxiety. He got a work-study position in the UI Veterans Service Office, which offers veterans access to computers and tutoring, through a collaborative program between the UI and the VA Hospital in Iowa City. And he met other veterans through the UI Veterans Association.

“The support offered through the UI Veterans Association really helped me out a lot,” says the Omaha native, who hopes to finish his degree in December 2013 before returning to active duty with the Navy with an officer’s commission. “I was able to hang out with people who speak the same language as I do. And it was just good having camaraderie again, something I took for granted when I was on active duty.”

Military veterans, particularly those returning from combat tours or other difficult assignments, face unique challenges in college, from adjusting to the pace and demands of a class schedule to connecting with students and faculty who can’t always relate to their experiences. The move can be especially difficult for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and other combat-related ailments.

Recognizing this need, the UI embarked several years ago to determine how the university can better serve its veteran student body, forming a task force out of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity. About 500 veterans are enrolled at the UI, and an additional 350 faculty and staff self-identify as veterans as well.

Because of its success working with veterans, the UI is often cited as a model for other campuses trying to welcome more service members into their student population. It’s also helped earn the UI the designation—for three consecutive years—as a military-friendly school by both Military Advanced Education and G.I. Jobs.

This success isn’t accidental; veterans have some real champions among the university’s leadership, people who know firsthand what it’s like to move from the war zone to the classroom.

Larry Lockwood, the university’s registrar, served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army and was twice wounded in combat, losing a foot after he stepped on a land mine. And John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center coordinator, was an Army medic for 26 years, providing aid to some 800 service members over the course of his military career.

Both men pursued academic degrees after returning from military service and know personally the challenges veterans face acclimating to campus life.

After quitting college in 1980, Mikelson returned to the UI in 2005 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. He was 45 at the time, older than most of his teaching assistants, professors, and classmates.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there on campus about what military life is like,” Mikelson says. “Less than 1 percent of the population is involved in the military.”

Mikelson says his office works hard to keep track of the various grants, scholarships, GI Bill versions, counseling support, and job placement services offered on campus, in Iowa, and across the country.

In addition to heading up the UI Veterans Services office, whose motto is “Reintegration to Graduation,” Mikelson serves as vice chair of the recently established Iowa Advisory Council on Military Education, where members share ideas on how to better serve veteran students. He also serves as chair of the Johnson County Military Affairs Association and of the Veterans Knowledge Community of the national organization NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

“My job is kind of holding all the pieces together,” he says. “And if I don’t know the answer, I have a book to point the student, staff, or faculty member to the right resource.”

Connell said he still struggles with anxiety from time to time, but by meeting other veterans, and taking advantage of the UI services, he’s looking forward to graduating in a few years.

“I’d definitely recommend the University of Iowa to other veterans,” he says.

Contacts

Stephen Pradarelli, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0007

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