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Queens' Veterans Support Featured in Charlotte Business Journal

imageQueens University opened a veteran's center for members of the QU4Troops student veterans association this fall, made possible by a grant from The Home Depot Foundation. (Photo credit: Melissa Key)
03/31/17 -  

Queens has worked in recent years to expand its stewardship to current and prospective military and veteran students. Our institution has collected a number of accolades: inclusion on Victory Media's 2017 Military Friendly list, participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program and recognition by U.S. News & World Report among the Top 20 Best Colleges for Veterans.

The Charlotte Business Journal featured an article on March 24 highlighting local efforts to assist military and veteran students in their transition into the work force.

By Laura Williams-Tracy

A Helping Hand from Higher Ed

Charlotte's universities are playing a growing role in helping veterans move into private work force

Charlotte-area universities are working to make the city a Permanent Change of Station for veterans leaving the military and returning to college before a career.

PCS is military lingo for the place you live, and area universities understand their role is critical as veterans make what is often a difficult transition from active duty to civilian life as a college student. Whether through student veteran organizations, scholarships or academic programs tailored to skills learned while in the service, public and private universities are trying to make the transition to student life as seamless as possible.

Some 170,000 veterans now call the Charlotte region home, in part because of its relatively low cost of living, recreation, entertainment and superb employment market.

"When I talk to veterans I talk about this being your last PCS. Come here, study here and stay here," says Alan Freitag, assistant dean of the graduate school at UNC Charlotte and a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force who recruits to UNC Charlotte's many programs.

UNC Charlotte began in 1946 to serve a generation of soldiers returning from World War II, and that part of the university's DNA remains 70 years later. UNC Charlotte has more than 800 veterans using benefits but more than 2,000 veterans on campus. That history will be commemorated in 2018 when UNC Charlotte's marching band will be the only U.S. band in Normandy for the annual remembrance of the D-Day Landings.

To support veterans in higher education, UNC Charlotte will award its third annual scholarship for veterans pursuing graduate degrees. It's a competitive process to win a two-year fellowship that pays tuition, health insurance and an annual stipend of $12,000 for master's degree students or $18,000 for Ph.D. students.

Freitag says the recipients have often used their GI Bill to complete an undergraduate degree, and this scholarship allows them to continue with higher education. So far, the university has funded three scholarships but would like to expand the program with money from private donors.

"Most veterans are coming for an undergraduate degree," Freitag says of the veterans he recruits to Charlotte. "What I'm seeing is uptick in those coming for graduate programs because undergraduate programs are readily available while they are on active duty. If not a bachelor's degree, many veterans come with advanced standing."

Freitag says UNC Charlotte's strong support network for veterans has grown, in part, because of the campus' Student Veterans Association, a national organization with chapters around the Charlotte area.

"We have a nice lounge and five full-time people who staff that office to process benefit applications and help with the transition process," Freitag says. "Going into the military is an abrupt cultural change where you are told where you will live, eat, wear and do, but when you get out you are often in free-fall. The structure is gone that you are accustomed to."

That's why it's important for military veterans returning to college to find one another, says Emily Richardson, dean of the Hayworth School of Graduate and Continuing Studies at Queens University of Charlotte.

Queens' efforts to focus on veterans support are relatively new but have already earned the school recognition on a list of Top 20 Best Colleges for Veterans by U.S. News & World Report. The private school in Charlotte's Myers Park neighborhood has about 50 veteran students.

Three years ago, Queens was offering veterans tuition assistance but had few other services. Richardson chaired a task force to look at what else the university might do.

Queens formed QU4Troops, a student veterans association. That group soon expressed its desire for a meeting space. After writing a business plan and presenting to the university president, the group secured a grant from The Home Depot Foundation of $6,000 to renovate a space on campus for a veterans' lounge.

The organization and lounge led to funding from the VA for a veteran work-study student to work 20 hours a week helping fellow veterans.

"I see our goal at the university as helping veterans make the transition from active duty to college, and the first semester is the most important," Richardson says. "It's so different on a college campus than the military and we need to make sure veterans meet other veterans immediately. They are a close-knit group and once they are introduced they take care of one another."

Northeastern University Charlotte formed a partnership with Fort Bragg in the fall of 2015 to bring three undergraduate and three master's degree programs to the Fayetteville campus. Active duty military may enroll in undergraduate programs on post in IT, management and health-care management. Most popular among active military is Northeastern's master's of science in project management.

"A big driver of those programs is they relate well to what soldiers are doing in the military. It's an easy transition of skills to that degree," says Will Stewart, Northeastern's assistant director of admissions, military engagement.

All of Northeastern's 30 students at the Fort Bragg campus are still active duty with some making the transition out of service while others are earning degrees with the intention of remaining in service.

Most veterans returning to college have earned some sort of GI Bill benefit, and local universities have programs to make paying for college easier for those who have served. Northeastern's active duty students pay just $12 out of pocket per course after using their $4,500 active duty education allotment and Northeastern's matching program.

Pfeiffer University offers all veterans a 40% discount on degree completion and graduate programs. Many veterans come to Pfeiffer having attended some college or community college before enlisting and need to fill gaps to complete their degree, says Chris Parker, vice president of enrollment management and marketing for Pfeiffer University.

Pfeiffer University has about 25 self-identified veterans currently enrolled in Charlotte and the Misenheimer campus. Parker says the main campus tends to attract younger veterans wanting the traditional on-campus experience, while the Charlotte campus draws older veterans who are likely working, raising families and finishing degrees.

Wingate University and Queens University say they structure tuition for veterans so they pay almost nothing out of pocket.

As a small university, Wingate faculty work with the campus' 30 veterans to transition to college, understand their GI Bill or other financial aid, find a pathway to a degree and work with those reservists who are sometimes called to active duty, says Karen Elizabeth Smith, assistant registrar and school certifying official for the VA.

"Usually their GI Bill is enough to cover their tuition and most will have a Wingate academic scholarship to fill any gaps," Smith says. "It's surprising how well their benefit does with a private university."

Richardson says Queens adjusts tuition so that military veterans returning to school using the GI Bill benefits don't pay any more for instruction.

"The GI Bill is the GI Bill, and that's what we charge. The money is coming from the government and paying for their time here. We are no more expensive for veterans than a public school."

Staying focused on an education while on active duty or after service is important to making an easier transition to the civilian working world, says Stewart of Northeastern University. He shares with fellow veterans his own story of taking classes where he could during active duty and completing his time in the military with a whopping 200 credit hours but no degree.

"I'm able to share that story with them to not do that," Stewart says. "You get the mindset that you are a high-rank in the military and that an employer will be lucky to have you, and that's not the case. You've got to have that degree. It makes them so much more marketable."

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