Economics major Aaron Emery wasn’t able to attend Orientation before starting his first semester at Mason. He was deployed in Iraq. Fortunately, for the former Army staff sergeant, that enrollment requirement was understandably waived. Still, it was a quick transition for Emery as he moved from Army life to civilian life to campus life. Emery was discharged from the Army in July, and, by August, he had started classes at Mason.
International Studies major Jim Miller has a similar story, only his transition to college was a little faster. He left the Marine Corps after eight years of service on August 18, 2009, and started classes 12 days later on the 30th.
As was Emery, Miller was in Iraq when he applied to Mason. Serving his third and final tour, Miller says he was fortunate to have access to a computer, so he could plan the next stage of his life while serving his country.
Both men turned to Mason’s Office of Military Services for assistance with the college application process. And they both ended up working there, helping other veterans make the same transition.
Because of its location in the Washington, D.C., area, Mason has always had a large veteran population and active Reserve Officer Training Corps program. In 2008, administrators decided an office dedicated to assisting veterans, active duty military, and their families was needed.
“Linda Schwartzstein [vice provost] and I had the idea for a [military services] position in Admissions at the same time a committee working with University Life and the Registrar’s Office identified a similar need,” says Andrew Flagel, Mason’s dean for admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development. “I set aside some funds for the purpose, and the Budget Committee agreed to match those funds to create the initial position.”
Once the position was filled (by then-military services liaison Michael Johnson, a former Marine Corps captain and current Mason graduate student), Mason applied for and received a two-year $100,000 Success for Veterans Award grant from the American Council of Education (ACE) and the Walmart Foundation. With that funding, the Office of Military Services became a reality.
Only two years old, Military Services has become a one-stop shop for information and assistance regarding admission to Mason and use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other veteran benefits. Mason is one of the few schools in the country to have such an office.
“It’s clear from our meetings with representatives from the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)], Department of Defense, and others from across the country that few institutions are forward-looking enough to consider the special needs of individuals who have served in defense of our country,” says Flagel. “I am proud that Mason has taken a national leadership role in supporting our military personnel and veterans in pursuing their higher education goals.”
About 1,400 students a year use the services of the office. Both Emery and Miller talk about the “military mindset” when discussing their work.
“The military environment is very structured,” Emery says. “Service members tend to think that if they just show up at the right time, everything will fall into place. Obviously, that’s not how it works at college.”
“I’m not here to hold anybody’s hand,” says Miller, “and I’m not going to provide the same type of supervision your leadership did when you were in the military. But I am somebody you can come to for help. We are here to help those fellow veterans, active duty, and military family members transition into higher education.”
“Every veteran who comes to our office is unique,” says Miller. “We all have a different agenda coming to the university, different background, and we may or may not qualify for some kind of educational benefit.”
“Not everyone gets their education paid for completely,” says Emery. “Many things go into dealing with the VA. You have to know how the VA works. In a way, everyone is a special case, and that’s where our office comes in.”
Emery says that the most-asked question is, I want to go to school here. Where do I start? “Few schools have an office such as this, so we get calls and e-mails from people all over the country who have heard about us and are pulling out their hair over some problem they hope we can give them direction on,” Emery adds.
Since the office opened, accolades and assistance have been pouring in. In 2010, G.I. Jobs magazine named Mason to its Military Friendly Schools list. According to the magazine, the list honors the top 15 percent of more than 7,000 colleges, universities, and trade schools in the nation that are striving to embrace America’s veterans as students.
In addition, Mason joined the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program run by the VA. This program allows degree-granting institutions in the United States to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the VA to help fund tuition expenses that exceed the highest public in-state undergraduate tuition rate.
Military Services also is expanding its reach. Other campus offices are interested in working with this population and looking to collaborate on programming.
The ACE-Walmart grant helped fund a counselor position with the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services. Military and veterans counselor Colin M. Browne has special training and experience dealing with veteran issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
One of the newer initiatives is a veteran transition course, which is supported by a grant from the Aurora Foundation. Taught by Charvis Campbell, assistant dean of University Life, this course gives student veterans an opportunity to get together and further their goals. According to Campbell, the needs and interests of the students in this course range from those preparing to graduate and start a job search to others working to make the most of their time in academia.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) approached Mason about putting together a focus group of student veterans. According to Emery, the GAO was seeking information from students using the benefits to find out where snags and gaps in information were. Mason was one of only a handful of schools nationally chosen by the GAO for this effort.
“Because the [GI Bill] is new, there are ‘hiccups,’” says Emery. In fact, the office submitted talking points about some of these hiccups to Mason President Alan Merten before he testified before Congress this past fall regarding the bill, which has since been revised.
In addition to veteran transition coordinators Miller and Emery, a handful of veterans also works in the office part time, thanks to work-study positions funded by the VA.
Jennifer Connors recently joined the office as its director after a 14-year Air Force career. “I truly believe what we do in the Office of Military Services is important and needed,” she says of her newest assignment at Mason.