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Everyday heroes: Student veterans receive 'Gold Star' treatment while pursuing degrees

When Shelby Township junior Mia Segura puts on her Army uniform each morning before training, in her eyes she embodies a family legacy that symbolizes the protection of freedom.

“I’m an Army brat, so the Army is like a family for me,” she said. “I was surrounded by everyday heroes.”

Segura is a cadet with the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and chose to serve her country by studying to become an Army officer at Central Michigan University. She wants to make a career of working in the military, like her parents did, and has an interest in either medical school or physical therapy.

She hopes to one day develop prosthetic limbs for soldiers who are injured in combat.

Gold Standard Qualifications:

  1. Establish a process for identification of current student veterans
  2. Have a veteran specific website
  3. Have an active student-run veterans organization
  4. Have veteran-specific career services, resources, advising and/or outcome monitoring.
  5. Have an on-campus veteran's coordinator
  6. Have a system to award college credit for prior military training
  7. Monitor and evaluate student veteran graduation rates, transfer rates, and academic retention

With Veterans Day this Friday, Nov. 11, Segura is one of an estimated 250 students on CMU’s campus who use Veterans Affairs benefits.

The university will be hosting a week of events honoring people like Segura and the other 850 students who use veterans benefits and take courses via the university’s Global Campus programs.

The week will conclude with a Veterans Day Ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11 in the Biosciences Building auditorium.

More than 5,000 veterans have graduated from CMU since the program’s inception in 1972, with more than 150 of those degrees being awarded to generals and admirals in various branches of the U.S. Military.

These resources are vital to students who defend America’s freedoms, said Duane Kleinhardt, director of CMU’s Veteran’s Resource Center.

“Veterans are a very small population of the overall country,” Kleinhardt said. “A very small percentage of people volunteer and lay their life on the line for the country. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those veterans who have made that choice.”

The Gold Level Standard

The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency officially categorized CMU as a “veteran friendly school.”

To earn this designation, CMU must meet standards dictated by the agency, which set seven baseline standards for these schools across the state of Michigan to meet. CMU meets all seven standards. These Gold Standard qualifications include:

  • Establish a process for identification of current student veterans
  • Have a veteran specific website
  • Have an active student-run veterans organization
  • Have veteran-specific career services, resources, advising and/or outcome monitoring.
  • Have an on-campus veteran’s coordinator
  • Have a system to award college credit for prior military training
  • Monitor and evaluate student veteran graduation rates, transfer rates, and academic retention

“(The gold-level standard) sets a bar for institutions of higher education to provide a certain level of service to our veteran students,” Kleinhardt said.“It’s the kinds of things the university does anyway to service our veterans. It just happens we meet those criteria.”

As one of 65 Michigan universities awarded a ‘veteran friendly’ ranking, CMU was one of 44 of those 65 schools to be awarded a gold-level ranking in August.

Some students believe there is room for improvement in the practice of meeting needs outside that criteria.

Cadet Aaishah Hasan said CMU “does a pretty good job” of meeting a soldier’s needs on campus. The senior from Fling believes CMU communicates with veterans better than most other universities and has more resources to provide.

Something Hasan said she is especially glad for is the military tuition discount for on-campus credit hours. Previously, military individuals studying on campus paid the standard rate of $405 per credit hour, while Global Campus students received a discount. Now, undergraduate military tuition is $290 per credit hour compared to the $405 non-veterans pay.

Cadet Joe Hymel is a senior from Ohio who enlisted with both the National Guard and Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The biggest problem for student veterans is the transition from a rigid military structure to a more relaxed schooling environment, he said.

“(In the military) you are told when to wake up, when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, then (transition) to an environment where you could go to class, or not if you don’t want to,” Hymel said. “It’s totally up to you.”

For veterans experiencing problems transitioning to living on campus, Veteran’s Resource Center has resources available to help students.

The VRC is a “narrow hallway,” said Mio senior Nicholas Badgero, tucked within Warriner Hall. The center’s main function is to provide expertise in the financial side of veteran’s benefits. They also help certify student courses and let student veterans know about other resources useful to them, like disability services and relevant student organizations.

The office is so small, Badgero said, that furniture would have to be moved to fit a wheelchair inside. For disabled veterans, this could pose a problem.

“It gets pretty crowded in here,” Kleinhardt said. “Many other universities have veteran lounges, somewhere for student veterans to congregate, talk, relax or study — the kinds of things that help make students feel welcome on campus.”

There was a plan last school year to move the VRC to Ronan Hall after a remodel was finished. The remodel was cancelled.

“We are doing our best to provide those brotherhood-types of events, but just like everywhere else, budgets are tight,” Kleinhardt said. “Everyone wants more resources, and I understand that the university has a finite amount.”

A Collaborative Effort

The Student Government Association has been working for the past few years on legislation that will benefit veterans. Most recently, the house and senate approved a resolution in early October to create a special veteran orientation program.

The legislation will go before CMU’s Academic Senate, where it will either be approved or denied. If approved, it will be passed on to President George Ross for his signature.

Another piece of legislation was signed by Ross in late September. This legislation was written by Badgero, and will establish a short-term military service absence policy.

Badgero, the president of the Student Veteran Association, said when servicemen and women are told to go on leave for training or emergency response, professors use “arbitrary judgement” about whether to accept late work or allow makeup tests.

“We had some students at CMU that were called up by the National Guard to go work on the Flint Water Crisis and had varying success working with their professors to be able to do that without impacting their education,” Kleinhardt said.

Not every professor on campus has been willing to work with CMU active members of the military.

“In some cases we have had professors that worked with their guardsmen, and some cases where students had to drop out of class because they were failing and the professor would not give them any sort of extension,” Badgero said.

Hymel was one of those people. He has had to go on leave six or eight times during the school year, and he has kept up with school for the most part. While he did not fail a class, once a professor would not take a late assignment.

“I do take extended absences for drills because we are training for more dynamic scenarios,” he said. “It’s a pain because it’s not like I didn’t do (my homework). I just have other responsibilities I’m legally accountable for.”

Capt. Adam Betz joined the Michigan Army National Guard after four years serving in the Marine Corps. He said he wanted to remain in the military while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Teaching Education.

Betz was taking a statistics class last spring when he was called to assist with the Flint Water Crisis. He contacted his professor soon after to let him know of his upcoming absence.

“Although he was somewhat understanding of my plight, he was uneducated on the immediacy of the situation and that I would be largely unavailable (via) internet and cell phone access,” Betz said.

The Michigan Army National Guard operated out of the basement of a Flint government building with no cell phone service while operating 18 hours a day working as the logistics response officer, an environment Betz said made it impossible to work on homework for the week he was gone in January.

Betz said he considered dropping the course after returning from Flint. He managed to pass the class with a B, and his instructor was helpful.

“It did present a very difficult environment for me to ‘crunch’ and study as well as submit group course work once the Flint activation was over,” Betz said. “It created stress that was not necessary had the instructor been correctly educated by the department.”

Jody Hassen, the executive director of Off-Campus Student Services, said the new short term military service policy can help in situations like Betz’s.

With the new policy, students can speak to Tony Voisin, associate vice president for Student Affairs, to arrange military absence and coordinate with instructors. The new policy went into effect on Oct. 16 when it was signed.

Looking Forward

SGA is working on a new piece of legislation in support of giving student veterans priority course registration.

“This would make sure veterans can get in the classes they need when they need to get into them, because the GI Bill is based on time,” Badgero said. “You have to take 12 credits, and the bill will not cover courses that are not in your major.”

Another upcoming resolution is in support of mandated Kognito online training for faculty and staff. Kognito is a company that provides virtual-reality scenarios of veterans and university faculty interacting in different situations.

Badgero said this makes sure university employees know how to respond when a veteran has a problem. The program has been available at CMU for a couple of years, but only 667 people have taken it since it was first introduced to CMU.

While progress is being made to make sure veterans are accommodated on campus, Badgero believes there is still more to do. Kleinhardt said CMU is doing all that it can for those in uniform.

“Specific programs the university provides to veterans just show the university’s desire to service that population,” Kleinhardt said. “It’s important for the university to show their support for those veterans because our way of life as we know it, our ability for any of us to come to CMU is dependent on the actions of those veterans who chose to serve their country. (The university) respects those that have taken an oath to lay their lives on the line for our country.”