Returning to the University of Iowa in 2011 after a 10-month deployment in Iraq was awkward and challenging for Army Reserve Sgt. Emily Walter.
The 22-year-old UI senior said getting back on track academically and managing her schedule wasn’t the problem. It was the social transition that was hard.
“You don’t realize until you get home that it takes time to establish a new normal,” Walter said. “It’s hard to learn how to function like you did before.”
Family members and friends had moved on in school and in their lives, and Walter said she felt left behind.
“I expected it all to be the same as when I left,” she said. “And it wasn’t.”
But Walter, who joined the Army Reserve as a West Des Moines high school student at age 17, said the services available for veterans on the UI campus have given her confidence that she has a support system in school and as she transitions into the work force.
“Knowing that there was a group here at the UI that was reaching out to us was really welcoming and great to see when you’re coming back,” she said.
UI officials have been working for years to enhance the educational experience for veterans – debuting veteran-specific classes, working with department heads to translate military training into course credits and offering support groups and events for service members.
The university has received praise for its efforts – ranking No. 6 this year in U.S. News & World Report’s first-ever list of veteran-friendly universities.
But UI officials want to go further.
When classes resume this spring, the UI will debut a new program aimed at further supporting its more than 650 veterans in their academic endeavors, social life and transition into the work force.
ICOVE, or Iowa Consortium for Veterans Excellence, is a first-of-its-kind initiative that will employ three full-time employees – plus graduate students and additional part-time workers – in offices on campus, said Allen Roberts Jr., UI military and veterans education specialist.
“We are the only college in the country that will have it,” Roberts said. “We are the pilot.”
In and out of the classroom
The program, which has been in the works for three years, will partner with the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System by providing a neuropsychiatrist for veterans who need help transitioning into everyday life.
Staffers also will include employment experts and marriage and family counselors, Roberts said.
“We want to help them in the classroom and out of the classroom as well,” Roberts said. “We have spent a lot of time integrating them from the military to college, but we spend a woeful amount of time integrating them from college to the work force.”
The program will make UI veteran students more marketable after college by getting them on a degree path and into the right classes, Roberts said. It will help them use education they received in the service toward a degree – meaning military training in leadership could count toward a business degree, for example.
“It’s funny that some veterans have to take international relations for their degree when they have lived in seven different countries,” he said. “We want to make an honest effort to help make those skills transferable.”
The program also will help veterans manage the stresses of everyday life, Roberts said.
“Intimate relationships are something almost all veterans are dealing with,” he said. “We want to make sure those relationships are healthy because that affects them at school.”
The ICOVE program will grow as it establishes roots on campus. But Roberts said he envisions it will be heavily used right from the start as the number of veterans on campus is swelling.
“There will be a bustling office of people strictly dedicated to helping veterans find success here,” he said. “This is an exciting time.”
The UI for years has had initiatives and resources in place to help veterans succeed, including online tools and advocates.
Going forward, Roberts said, the UI also will work with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to try to make the state an educational destination for former and current service members. To that end, Roberts is helping create a website to guide veterans interested in pursuing an education in Iowa to the right school based on their plans and skills.
That tool could roll out in six months to a year.
“We are really thinking of this from the foundation all the way to the 500 foot view,” he said.
‘Life after war’
The number of veterans on the UI campus has grown in the past few years, jumping from 260 receiving G.I. Bill benefits in 2008 to about 500 this year. And there are about 150 more UI student veterans who do not make the official count because their benefits have expired, Roberts said.
The increase, in large part, is due to the draw down of troops.
“The wars are over and the military is downsizing,” Roberts said, noting that the nation had its largest standing army in 20 years until recently. “It’s making these tough cuts, and people are getting out.”
Of the UI veterans on campus, about 46 percent are with the Army, 18 percent are with the Marines, and 17 percent are with both the Air Force and the Navy, he added.
And even with all the veteran support in place, Roberts said, the UI is viewing its surge of veterans in a new light. Instead of looking only at how to help them, the UI and the state is looking to benefit from the veterans.
“I’m here to help them understand the usefulness of veterans and how they can benefit our campus and our economy,” he said. “There are decent jobs here that veterans are qualified for.”
UI Registrar and Assistant Provost Larry Lockwood, who also is a veteran, said the unique skills that service members possess are among the reasons the UI values having them on campus and wants them to make the most of their time there.
Among the veteran-specific programs aimed at helping them get degrees is a specialty course titled, “Life after war,” geared toward helping veterans readjust.
UI graduate student Wendy Rasmussen is teaching the course and said the plan is to change the title to “Life after service” for the spring semester.
“There is a bit of a changing demographic in the veterans who are coming to school here,” said Rasmussen, who is an officer in the Navy Reserve. “They weren’t necessarily on the front lines, but they still were in the military.”
The course is split into three topics – academic skills, psychological issues and vocational transition. Rasmussen said the veterans she has taught have been grateful for the support and the continued efforts to expand those services on the UI campus.
“My interactions with university officials have been, ‘How can we get more veterans on campus, and what can we give them once they’re here?’” she said.