Illinois State University supports its troops.
The campus has for years consistently earned a spot in Victory Media’s listing of military friendly schools. The 2015 recognition puts ISU in the nation’s top 15 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools with regard to supporting veterans’ educational pursuits.
The University is also ranked as a top school in the 2015 Military Advanced Education Guide to Colleges & Universities, which measures best practices in military and veteran education. Institutions are evaluated on military culture, financial aid, flexibility, on-campus support and online support services.
Illinois State’s ongoing commitment to service men and women is not surprising to those who know the University’s history. The tradition of military support goes back to the 1800s and the school’s first president, Charles Hovey, who hired a drillmaster to prepare students as Civil War soldiers. Commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln to form what became the Schoolmaster’s Regiment from Illinois State students, Hovey was one of only two college presidents to lead a Western regiment.
During World War I, a committee appointed by President David Felmley oversaw war gardens, an ISNU service flag, and troop correspondence. Members ensured that many of the students who left to serve were able to graduate.
Regardless of the decade or conflict, Illinois State has continued to honor and support veterans. Financial aid opportunities, exclusive career services, academic support and veteran student organizations are just some of what makes Illinois State a preferred choice for all with military experience. From separate orientation sessions provided with the start of the fall semester to a revitalized Veterans Memorial Garden on the Quad dedicated to all who have served, Illinois State appeals to individuals regardless of their military branch.
Of the 20,615 students enrolled at ISU in the 2014-2015 academic year, more than 443 were student veterans. On average, more than 100 new freshman or transfer veteran students join the campus each year. Most have prior active duty, although reservists also enroll. Their transition from military life to the collegiate experience is helped by Judy Curtis, associate registrar and head of the Veterans and Military Services Office.
“Student veterans are the same as any other population of students,” Curtis said. “You have those who are very well adapted and hit the ground running. Then you have those who struggle with making the transition from the rigid lifestyle they were used to and coming into one with no boundaries.”
Curtis works with students and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her duties include ensuring veterans maximize their educational benefits from the Montgomery G.I. or Post-9/11 bills.
“That is our priority first and foremost—to make sure they receive their benefits. We also serve as a referral to other resources on campus and in the community,” Curtis said. Among them is an academic advisor who works with veterans until they are accepted into a major. The Career Center offers materials and workshops to help veterans showcase their unique skills and experiences to potential employers.
“ISU touts the University’s small-college feel, and that comes across in the services veterans have,” said Curtis, who realized the importance of supporting veterans and active duty military personnel while stationed with her husband at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. “I worked in the education center on post, and that’s where I learned the military culture and the jargon.”
Curtis is pleased with ISU’s efforts. The campus offers a study center exclusively for veterans, which gives students with such a unique experience the chance to work together. Orientations that focus on specific campus services—such as Milner Library—help veterans gain familiarity with the University. These focused opportunities are a great help to veterans who appreciate the camaraderie, especially given their unique path to the University.
Cassandra Dodge ’14 earned an associate’s degree at a community college before joining the Air Force in December 2006. She was placed in security forces for the C-130 aircraft and was regularly on the move. She visited 23 countries in less than five years, many in Africa and Asia.
After separating from the Air Force in July 2011, Dodge spent six months acclimating to civilian life before enrolling in ISU’s criminal justice program. She is completing a master’s degree with plans to pursue a doctorate. Her research focus is the effects of emerging technology on law enforcement and criminal behavior. Her service and travels abroad have given her a unique perspective, which she shares in the classroom.
“When my instructors discuss how criminal justice varies in other nations, I am able to bring in some personal experience and give context to what we are talking about,” Dodge said. “Sometimes we are not very compassionate to other cultures. Because I was able to work with individuals and military personnel from other countries, it forced me to learn more about their history and learn the context of what we were doing and where we were coming from. It changes the way you look at things.”
Dodge is a founding member of Omega Delta Sigma, a coed veterans’ fraternity. Members meet weekly, volunteering or gathering for social activities. The shared experience of all veterans, regardless of their service branch, creates a mutual understanding.
“When you’re with another student group and they find out you’re a veteran, it’s not a bad thing, but you’re going to be coming with a different life experience,” Dodge said. “In the veterans group, you don’t have to explain certain things. You don’t have to translate.”
Fellow veteran Matthew Thein ’15 found the same to be true when he came to ISU intent on returning to the military.
Thein joined the Air Force in 2006 after attending community college. “I was tired of watching others do great things,” he said. “I talked with friends who were enlisted and decided the time was right. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
An Air Force combat engineer, Thein assisted with military and humanitarian construction projects around the world. He partnered with troops from the Army, Marines, and Navy. After serving honorably, he enrolled in ISU’s Department of Politics and Government in spring 2012. He is pursuing a commission into the Navy as an intelligence officer, for which he hopes to receive orders this fall.
“I have a strong passion for foreign relations and America’s foreign policy,” Thein said. “We built a lot of things for other countries and did a lot domestically. The whole aspect of how the United States works with government and nongovernment agencies and the relationships we hold with these other bodies was always something that interested me. After having seen that firsthand, it made me want to explore that field.”
Thein found several places at Illinois State he could call home. He held a spot on the Redbird cheerleading squad for two years and worked with Curtis in the Veterans and Military Services Office, helping fellow veterans transition to ISU. He is certain the rigorous lifestyle and challenges veterans faced benefit them as students.
“A lot of us know what it’s like to overcome grueling obstacles on a daily basis. When we encounter a big project that will take a lot of teamwork, we draw on experiences from work sites, deployment, and training exercises—experiences a lot of these students haven’t had.”
One struggle fellow veteran Doug Faber ’15 had was choosing what to study. He completed general education classes at a community college before transferring to Illinois State. After several semesters passed without being able to settle on a major, Faber decided to take a break from classes and joined the Navy in February 2009 as an aviation ordnanceman.
The assignment involved loading bombs and missiles on F-18 aircraft aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln during Operation Enduring Freedom. The job took him around the world, as the ship left California and months later dropped anchor in Virginia. The close quarters taught self-control and how to interact with a team.
Four years after joining, Faber left active duty and returned to Illinois State. He enrolled as an economics major but shifted to agriculture business. The decision extends a family legacy. His father, Curtis Faber ’77, served in the Navy and also earned an agriculture business degree from ISU.
“When it came down to it, that’s what I knew very well and that’s what I’m good at,” the younger Faber said. “We have a family farm run by my uncle. My dad graduated with an ag business degree and then pursued banking. Two of my uncles taught agriculture. I guess it was just bred into me.”
He worked through the Career Center to find his first job, which was offered eight months before he graduated. He still holds the position of operations management trainee with Consolidated Grain and Barge. He attributes his success to the combination of military experience and ISU.
“Coming out of college, I told my dad I needed an internship,” Doug said. “He said that I had already done my internship. The Navy was my internship. The military experience shows you can hold a job. It shows you have responsibility, dedication, and commitment.”
Seeing these three student veterans—one a graduate student, one an aspiring officer, and one having rapid success in private industry—it is impossible to disagree. Their experience exemplifies why ISU maintains recognition as a military friendly school, which Curtis knows is a point of pride for the University as a whole.
“We’ve been in a long period of war and there is a much greater awareness of the issues faced by this generation of veterans,” Curtis said. “Illinois State is definitely a welcoming and supportive place for them.”