Matt Thein is one of Illinois State’s biggest cheerleaders. Literally.

The physically fit Air Force veteran is among several hundred former military service members on the Illinois State campus. But as he’s integrated back into civilian life, Thein has also fully immersed himself into campus life—even joining the Redbird cheerleading team after being stopped randomly on the Quad by a coach.

“It’s been one of the most fun experiences of my life,” he said.

Students like Thein are why Illinois State is regularly listed among the most military-friendly schools in the U.S. The senior political science major, who plans to re-enlist as an Army officer after ROTC training, said the Illinois State campus is a very accepting place for veterans like him.

“My transition from the Air Force back into civilian life was pretty interesting. I guess the best way to describe it is—fish out of water,” said Thein, who works in the Veterans and Military Services office.

Thein isn’t alone. Jaime Merdinger, an undeclared sophomore, spent four years in the Marine Corps, including 11 months in Afghanistan. Now, he’s giving back to his fellow veterans as a teaching assistant in a weekly seminar course that helps student veterans in their transition to the University and civilian life.

And while he brings with him life experiences that many of his younger undergraduate peers have not had, Merdinger said that doesn’t limit his ability to work with—and learn from—his classmates.

“At 24 years old, I’m still learning a lot from these students, about myself, through them,” Merdinger said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at