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Moving beyond 'military friendly' status

As many veterans return from more than 10 years at war and decide to take advantage of their deserved GI Bill benefits, they voice frustration with the perceived roadblocks in moving into higher education. Navigating their benefits, striking a balance between work, family and school life and pursuing the ultimate goal of a career in the civilian workforce can be daunting.

Higher education institutions have sought to incorporate ways of being "military friendly" to assist in easing the transition from military life. A quarter of the student population of more than 25,000 at Old Dominion University has a direct connection to the military. Being "military friendly" has been a part of our culture for decades.

For the past four years, ODU has been ranked as one of the top military friendly schools by G.I. Jobs and as a "top college" in Virginia for future service members by the website College Database because of our affordable tuition rates and strong ROTC programs. Most recently, we were ranked 30th among four-year schools in the nation's Best Colleges for Vets.

While we are proud of these designations, we are committed to moving beyond just being military friendly to being a military supportive institution. ODU already provides unique offerings ranging from an innovative Troops to Teachers program to special student policies to accommodate unpredictable military activation/deactivation.

In Virginia, we have taken up the call to bridge the military and civilian divide across all of our higher education institutions. Last week, ODU was honored to host the inaugural Virginia Student Veterans conference, which drew nearly 250 students and faculty administrators from 57 higher education institutions around Virginia, as well as Maryland and Washington, D.C.

We partnered with the Department of Veterans Services and the State Council of Higher Education to plan the state's first-ever conference of its kind. The goal was to increase best practices in serving veterans in Virginia higher education institutions. We were thrilled that more than half of the participants were student veterans who have experienced the challenges and could offer direct feedback on what programs and services they need.

The day-long conference was one example of how ODU is looking for ways to build collaborations across the state for military-connected students.

ODU has formed a military alliance comprised of administrators, faculty, staff and community organizations to ensure the coordination, continuation and development of effective military-centered programs and support services.

Our Student Veterans Association is now more than 450 members strong. Through their experiences, they're helping to educate our faculty and staff, providing a focus for training to address knowledge about military culture and readjustment issues, improve communication skills and identify risk signs and referral sources.

The university also has worked hard to be a resource for veterans from before they apply until after they graduate.

ODU has coordinated its assistance programs, as recommended by the American Council of Education Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges guidelines, to review transfer of service for credits. It has coordinated military activation and deactivation policies regarding re-admission, excused absences and refunds. And focus groups have provided needs assessments and program evaluations on an ongoing basis.

Once student veterans are enrolled, ODU facilitates mentoring through programs pairing veterans with student peers, faculty or professionals in their desired fields.

ODU also offers several distance-learning programs that are popular with military-related students and can be accessed remotely from anywhere in the world, such as our master of engineering management program, which meets the unique needs of service members such as those on submarines.

Finally, for students approaching graduation, the ODU campus hosts one of eight Veterans Business Outreach Centers in the United States, offering entrepreneurial development services to military veterans and reservists in the mid-Atlantic region. In addition, Troops to Teachers helps eligible military personnel begin new careers as teachers in public schools.

To bring all of these assets together, ODU is developing a Military Connection Center, which will serve as a one-stop shop for academic and personal support.

Our veterans have stood up for us. Now it's time for our colleges and universities to stand up for them.

Kathleen Levingston is director of the Military Connection Center at Old Dominion University and faculty adviser for the Student Veterans Association.

Posted to: Guest Columns Opinion

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