On the 12th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and during Saint Leo University's 40th anniversary year of educating those who have served our nation, Saint Leo President Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., affirmed the university's proud commitment to military and veteran education – and shared some of Saint Leo's best practices for meeting the needs of this growing student population – before a congressional subcommittee.

Dr. Kirk testified before the Education & the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. The hearing was titled, "Keeping College Within Reach: Supporting Higher Education Opportunities for America's Servicemembers and Veterans." He spoke in support of the national imperative to assist active military servicemembers and veterans in their efforts to obtain post-secondary educations and to support vets with the transition from active duty to civilian life and higher education.

University understands unique challenges vets face.

At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx, who chairs the House subcommittee said that with more troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, colleges and universities will face the largest influx of student veterans on campus since World War II.

During his testimony, Dr. Kirk said that during the past academic year, Saint Leo enrolled 5,697 student-veterans and 4,886 active duty military and reservists, comprising nearly 39 percent of the university's student body. The university awarded 1,485 degrees to veterans last year, which is double the number from two years ago.

Dr. Kirk told subcommittee members that Saint Leo began offering full-degree programs on military bases in 1973 and became the first college or university in the nation to grant the bachelor's degree on an Air Force base. Today, the university educates men and women of the armed forces on 16 military bases.

"At Saint Leo, our Veteran Student Services Office works collaboratively with all university departments and community organizations to best meet the needs of our student-veterans in order to ensure them every opportunity to accomplish individual goals."

During his testimony – and in answer to questions from subcommittee members – Dr. Kirk shared numerous examples of efforts at Saint Leo to create a proactive, "veteran-supportive environment":

  • Increasing the number of veteran certifying officials from 20 to 52.

  • Training faculty and staff in identifying and addressing issues veterans may face in pursuing their education, including how to recognize and respond to post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Implementing a retention alert system so advisors can take a closer look when a student misses classes or receives failing grades and see that appropriate remediation is provided.

  • Providing students with a 'road map' to graduation with a clear sequence of courses that is updated every term.

  • Offering a mentorship program that connects student-veterans with faculty and staff who are also veterans.

  • Ensuring students receive critical financial support from a variety of sources – including programs supported by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs – by participating in Yellow Ribbon, and raising money for private scholarships.

  • Initiating a two-step certification proves for VA benefits that makes the process quicker and more manageable for veterans.

  • Educating the university community about military culture and veterans' issues.

  • Working with local public schools and training university education majors and faculty in dealing with issues faced by children of veterans.

  • Conducting training sessions with law enforcement agencies and criminal justice students and faculty regarding issues they may encounter with veterans in their communities.

  • Providing flexible online degree programs that fit the mobile lifestyle of military personnel worldwide.

"Many vets choose to attend small institutions."

Dr. Kirk stated that many vets choose to attend small institutions and provided a poignant example of the benefit of the personalized attention that schools such as Saint Leo can provide.

In answer to a question posed by Rep. Joseph Heck about the advantage of streamlining benefits programs for veterans, Dr. Kirk said simplification of benefits and stabilizing requirements is extremely important.

"We are constantly training our people because things are constantly changing and vets can get caught in the middle."

Dr. Kirk told the panel that last summer the university paid short-term rent for veterans who were unable to receive a housing allowance because they did not meet the requirements of full-time students.

"These kinds of changes can throw them way off course."

Pride in serving those who serve.

To conclude his testimony, Dr. Kirk explained to the panel that at the center of the Saint Leo campus stands a 30-foot bronze sculpture of a soldier, sailor, airman, marine and guardsman upholding Lady Liberty as a tribute to all of the university's veteran and military students.

"It's a daily reminder to all of us on campus that their service allows us the freedom to live, learn and teach in peace and security. We take great pride in serving those who serve."

Image Credit: Saint Leo University

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