By Kat Riddler, Editor-In Chief
Military Times released the 2017 Best for Vets colleges list. The University of Missouri- St. Louis ranked 40 out of 175 in the nation in the four-year institution category. This marks the third year in a row UMSL has been recognized as one of the best institutions for veterans.
UMSL currently has over 350 student veterans and military-connected students. Jim Craig, chair of the department of military and veterans studies, served for 25 years as a soldier, a cadet, and as an officer in the U.S. Army. Craig explained, “Military-connected students are children and spouses of veterans who often are using some flavor of GI Bill benefits based on their connection to a veteran. Sometimes the number is imprecise because not all veterans and military-connected students self-identify.”
To be considered for inclusion on the Military Times’ list, colleges and universities had to fill out an exhaustively detailed, roughly 150-question survey. Institutions were evaluated in five categories: university culture, academic outcomes/quality, student support, academic policies, and cost and financial aid. “I am not surprised that we won the honor again,” Craig said. “UMSL is a campus that understands the adult-learner. It understands the needs of students who have families, jobs, and external lives. But it also has some of the best academic programs regionally (even nationally) and it is well connect to the city it serves.”
On Veterans Day, November 11, UMSL student Jeph Jones, will be speaking after the Flag Raising Ceremony and Open House at the Veterans Center. This is the first time a student will be speaking at the event. Craig stated there was a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day that some people miss. This distinction between honoring those who died and those still living sparked the inspiration to bring in a student to speak. Craig said, “We should strive to recognize those who fought and survived. Often that task is actually harder because dealing with the living means you have to deal with the messiness of life: trials, successes, failures, and accomplishments. Veterans Day activities shouldn’t be sweeping and dramatic, they should to be small scale and personalized.”
Craig highlighted the Veterans Center as a great service available on campus that has been around since 2012. He pointed out that the Department of Military and Veterans Studies has one foot in academia and the other in student services. Craig said, “The start of veteran programming on campus actually started in 2012 in response to student veterans advocating on campus. These veterans fought their way onto Dean Yasbin’s undergraduate advisory council and worked hard to raise the Dean’s awareness in veteran’s issues on campus. In response, the Dean established the Student Veterans Center.”
Rebecca McMenamin is in charge of the Veterans Center. Craig said, “Rebecca not only runs the day-to-day activities of the Veterans Center, she also manages all GI Bill certification right there in the center instead of in the registrar’s office. This small change has made a huge difference for our student veterans.”
The Veterans Center is a resource for veterans, current service members, and their families as they transition into a college campus life, but the space is open to all students. McMenamin explained the significance of handling G.I. Bill eligibility, “In addition to the regular admissions process, military-connected students have the added complexity of figuring out how to use their GI Bill benefits, which on a campus this size, can be very difficult for new students to navigate on their own. Unless you are using VA benefits, you wouldn’t know that there are so many rules and stipulations.”
There are many resources on campus like veteran peer tutoring, academic and career workshops, and Military Culture Training called Green Zone training for faculty and staff to help create the necessary support group for veterans. There are even veteran-specific new and transfer student orientations. McMenamin said, “It’s these connections that drive success when the stressors of academic life take over. As adult-learners, most of our students are balancing multiple priorities such as families, work, and school. That’s why a solid support system is so critical to staying in college.”
UMSL also provides two undergraduate minors in Military and Veterans Studies. The coursework is multidisciplinary and no military service is required for the minor. Craig said, “Military and Veterans Studies students will graduate with a nuanced understanding of the military and veteran experience, the role veterans play in our society, and the obligations our society might hold towards this subset of our population.”
Craig teaches a mandatory course for new and transfer student veterans at UMSL to help provide information on campus resources as the students transition to academic life. There is a five day academic boot camp offered in August to help veterans refresh math and writing skills. This boot camp also connects to St. Louis area veteran support organizations like The Mission Continues and Midwest Veterans Service Alliance. Craig hopes to expand UMSL classes in Defense and Security Studies to help provide “the knowledge and skills to address some of the most important challenges facing our society, today and in the future.”
The Veterans Center is located in 211 Clark Hall. They can be contacted at 314-516-5705 or at VeteransOffice@umsl.edu. They are hosting an open house November 10 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to have students and staff visit the center. To learn more about the Best for Vets list, check out their website: http://www.militarytimes.com/colleges2017-methodology.