After returning home from active duty, many military veterans choose to attend college, whether it’s a community college, trade school, or a full-fledged university. And there are people and programs ready to help them take that step. We’re exploring educational opportunities for veterans on this edition of “Sense of Community.”
Actually, the Federal Government has offered a range of benefits to returning vets ever since the original G.I. Bill of 1944. In 2008 Congress passed a new G.I. Bill, called the “Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act.” It’s for anyone who has served for at least 90 consecutive days on active duty after September 10, 2001. It provides tuitions and fees, money for housing if you’re in school more than half-time, and up to a thousand dollars per school year for books and supplies. There’s great information about the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill at the Veterans Administration website, www.vets.gov, on how to apply for G.I. Bill benefits.
But getting the money is only part of the challenge. Springfield’s colleges and universities provide a variety of help and support for returning veterans trying to navigate their way through the educational process, and I visited two of them for this report: the Oldham Family Veteran Student Center at Missouri State University, and the Veterans Upward Bound program at Ozarks Technical College.
The MSU Veterans Student Center is housed in 2500 square feet of space in Meyer Library. They’ve bene there about a year and a half, says Center Director Rayleen Ziegler. “The veteran population needed a larger space. We were in Carrington (Hall) in a very small area.” The Center offers assistance to anyone affiliated with the military, not just students but faculty and staff. “We help them with any type of resources they might need,” according to Ziegler, “whether they need the VFW, the DAV, the American Legion. We help the veterans transition into their school, into their classes. Whether you’re coming to Missouri State or not, we are happy to answer those questions, or to direct you to the correct resources. We are all here to help our student veterans any way that we can.”
Diedre Ashley is the Center’s Office Support Assistant. She assists students with their VA paperwork, talking new students through the benefit process, and helps advise the veteran student organization on campus. She spent four years in the Marine Corps working in a supply storage facility in Afghanistan. “I went straight from high school into the Marine Corps,” says Ashley. “As soon as I got out of the Marine Corps and I got back to Missouri, I came here to Missouri State and I went right to the Office of Veteran Student Services, and they helped me apply for my benefits.”
While completing a degree in criminology at MSU, Deidre Ashley started working at the Veteran Students Center. “I discovered that I really, really enjoy working with veterans and helping my fellow veterans and their family members try to figure out the transition from military life to civilian student life. Also, we do work pretty closely with the Veterans Upward Bound over at OTC. They actually come over here and they talk to some of our students every now and then.”
Veterans Upward Bound at Ozarks Technical College is a new educational assistance program for returning veterans—the office just opened in October 2017, according to Director Michelle Ciesielski (pronounced “seh-LISK-ee”). The program, she says, is one of the three original “TRIO” grant programs (hence the name) through the U.S. Department of Education. “TRIO grants really focus on helping make college accessible for everybody. But Veterans Upward Bound actually focuses on helping veterans enroll and be successful in college.”
The program starts right from pre-admission, helping vets identify which school or college they wish to attend, which program of study, ordering copies of their transcripts, and acquiring financial aid, veteran’s benefits and scholarships. And they provide tutoring and academic assistance.
Paul Wells spent a decade in the Marine Corps, and now serves in the Army Reserves, in addition to taking some online courses at OTC. “I was a cook for four years, and I was also a Marine security guard for four years. I almost made it around the world twice.” Wells would eventually like to get a degree in culinary arts. He says Upward Bound has been extremely helpful. “Going through the financial aid process, just enrolling into classes and the whole lot, it was much easier to go through.”
Penelope Kimball spent ten years in the Army and was deployed twice to Iraq after September 11, 2001. She is completing a nursing program at OTC. And she too has high praise for Veterans Upward Bound. “Oh, they’ve been amazing,” she says. “They’re incredibly helpful. So when this (Veterans Upward Bound) came about, I talked to Michelle (Ciesielski) about getting writing and English tutors and math tutors. The veterans that were here before Veterans Upward Bound started, basically it was a “help-your-brother” type organization: if I’m good at math I’m going to help you... you’re good at English, you’re going to help me.” She says Veterans Upward Bound streamlines and organizes that rather informal process. “Oh, yeah. These people, they have way more resources than we do, and they’ve been phenomenal.”
You can contact the MSU Oldham Family Veteran Student Center at (417) 836-6199 or at http://www.missouristate.edu/veterans. And OTC’s Veterans Upward Bound office can be reached at (417) 447-7840, or online at http://students.otc.edu, and click on “Veterans & Military Services.”