How military-friendly is UMD?
Being a military veteran on a college campus can come with a number of challenges. The adjustment of coming back from combat and the differences in experience from their peers are part of what can make college a difficult time for a veteran.
However, UMD has been consistently recognized by militaryfriendly.com since 2011 for being a military friendly college campus due to its Veterans Resource Center, academic policies and culture.
Senior Kodey Weis said that he found the Veterans Club during his freshman year to get help with his benefits and to connect with people similar to him. Having spent over four years in the Army National Guard, he was the president of the club during his sophomore year from 2015 to 2016. Weis still spends time assisting other student veterans that need help finding resources for benefits, mental health, transitioning to civilian life and more.
“[The Veterans Club] is not just for veterans, it’s for veterans and those who support veterans,” Weis said. “We’ve had members that have never served but have had family or spouses and they’re all welcome to everything that we have.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 15 percent of student veterans in the U.S. are traditionally college aged students, with most ranging from ages of 24 to 40. Only 3.7 percent of UMD students had previous military experience according to the 2015-16 Campus Climate Survey. Student veterans often struggle to connect with other students because of the differences in age and experience.
UMD student Justin Zunker, who has spent six years in the marine reserves, said that the Veterans Club helped ease his transition to college by giving him a place to find people that he can relate to.
“I realized that it’s harder to relate with a lot of students, especially if you’re older coming into freshman and sophomore courses,” Zunker said. “It’s just nice being around some people that kind of get it and have shared some similar experiences.”
Jake Schmidt is a student veteran at UMD who previously spent eight months overseas as a member of the Air Force. Much like other veterans, he said that the Veterans Club was helpful for his transition to college because of the connections he made with other veterans.
“You immediately find out that you have things in common with people here and everybody’s really accepting,” Schmidt said. “At the same time, we accept that you are who you are but we’ll disagree with you and have spirited debates about everything which is fun.”
Aside from giving student veterans a place to connect with each other on campus, UMD provides veterans with resources both for academics and the transition back to civilian life. UMD’s Veterans Resource Center staff can guide students through their educational benefits, get them acclimated to college life, and they can refer students to agencies in the community that can offer mental health counseling, employment help, and family assistance.
While many student veterans find socializing with other veterans to be helpful with the transition back to civilian life, others have difficulty readjusting after fighting in combat. For UMD, this is the point in which they would send a student veteran to the Duluth Vet Center. Chris Roemhildt, who works at the Vet Center, said that they make an effort to do outreach to colleges in the Duluth area to educate student veterans on education benefits and mental health services.
“One of our big missions is that we try to normalize the process of getting out of the military, coming back from a war zone, and being a civilian again,” Roemhildt said. “Everyone has some sort of tribulation as they get out and some people handle it a little bit better than others.”
According to Roemhildt, the first three years of getting out of the military pose the highest risk years of veterans for unemployment, mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide. He said that while it may be hard for a veteran to do, reaching out for help when it’s needed is one of the biggest steps towards completing the transition back to civilian life.
“We have professionals, licensed clinical social workers, and therapists of different backgrounds,” Roemhildt said. “We have an eclectic group of counselors and therapists so we can approach it all in a little bit of a different way. There’s not one model that works for everybody.”
Aside from the mental health aspect of being a student veteran, there are also challenges in conflicting schedules. However, Zunker said that his professors at UMD have accommodated his demanding schedule whenever he has needed it.
“When I was actively in the reserves I would have drills once a month or even two weeks of training that would interfere with college and professors were always really good about giving me the formal excuse to make up a test,” Zunker said.
As much as UMD does to help student veterans with academics, student benefits and mental health services, some veterans still feel a slight disconnect when socializing with other students. Zunker said he has felt some students have acted differently towards him when he wore his combat backpack on campus.
“Sometimes when I used to wear just a normal backpack, I did feel treated a little differently than when I wear the combat backpack,” Zunker said. “I think I’ve met people where they were not necessarily intimidated to talk to me but it felt like people were maybe assuming certain things about my views on politics and ideologies.”
Zunker later clarified his statement, saying that he noticed more of a gap in talking to people, sometimes even a lack of conversation, but he said that peers have opened up to him more when he began talking to them.
While student veterans account for a small amount of the UMD student population, UMD’s efforts to be a military friendly campus have been noticed by veterans like Kodey Weis. Weis said that the university has met his needs as a veteran because of its academic, mental health and student benefit services along with its supportive administration.
“From the way I’ve heard faculty, the administration and Chancellor Black have felt about the veteran community, they try their best where they can and have a good working relationship with us and they’re open to hearing any concerns that we have,” Weis said. “They’ve been more than helpful.”