Since it was known as a military college dating back to 1890, Saint Leo University has always had a strong commitment to educating military members and their families.
We recently caught up with Dr. Luke McClees, director of Saint Leo's Office of Military Affairs and Services, to find out about his background, what his team offers, and how this office can greatly benefit active-duty, reservist, veteran, and military family students.
Q: What is your military background?
A: I served for four-and-a-half years in the Marine Corps. I also had a combat deployment during this timeframe.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I got my BA in Spanish and Hispanic Studies from the University of Kentucky. I earned my master's in Teaching World Languages with an Emphasis on Spanish from Georgetown College in Kentucky. I then got my Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Eastern Kentucky University.
Q: What is your professional background?
A: I started out teaching within a parochial school system.
I then worked as an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University where I taught Spanish and other courses on how to teach world languages. I taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
I was approached about teaching in a newly formed veteran studies program. They were looking for professors who could fit a certain mold to teach in this curriculum, and it was one of the first of its kind. The students in this program varied quite a bit – veterans and those who wanted to help veterans. This included students going into mental health counseling, social work, nursing, and even some who wanted to work for the Veterans Administration.
In basic terms, veteran studies is a curriculum exploring what it means to be a vet and to have served, the pros and cons of life after serving, and so much more. It's safe to say that the military has largely been left out of the modern academic world.
Q: How did you wind up coming to Saint Leo University?
A: My wife and I moved to Florida due to some changes in our lives. I had heard of Saint Leo and attended an event where I met a board member for the university. He told me about how this position working on military affairs was available and how I might be a great fit for it. As much as I enjoy working on the academics side, seeing the results of your work can take time. In this role, I can have a faster and more direct impact on individuals who are looking for a variety of services and assistance.
Q: Who are your team members?
A: My main full-time staff member is Mark Westbrook, who is the associate director of our Office of Military Affairs and Services. Mark is based out of our Newport News Education Office in Virginia.
We also currently have two part-time student workers.
Q: What is Saint Leo University's history with educating military and veteran students?
A: From 1890 through 1903, we were considered a military college. There were also two other periods throughout our history in which we had "military" in our name.
In 1973, we were one of the first colleges to offer distance learning opportunities. The main focus of this initiative was on military members, many of whom were involved in the Vietnam War back when we first started these distance learning programs. Since then, it's safe to say that we have educated thousands of military members, veterans, and their families. We currently have a presence directly on 17 military bases and also have some of our other Education Centers very close to military bases.
Q: How many students in the military or connected to the military does Saint Leo currently educate?
A: We currently have over 5,000 students who are connected to the military in some way. These include active-duty, reservist, guard, veteran, and families of military members.
Q: What specific services does the Office of Military Affairs and Services provide?
A: The main purpose of this office is to remove barriers for members of the military, veterans, and their families so they can succeed at academics.
This could be anything from helping them understand the various policies and laws in place to protect them to finding the right academic program for them. We partner with several different departments around the university and can serve as a platform in which we can "hand off" these students to the appropriate areas of the institution.
I should also mention that having a military background, we can "speak their language" and put them at ease before we point them in the appropriate direction. We can also advocate on their behalf to ensure they get the support they need. While many active-duty members and veterans advocate for themselves already, we're always willing to work on their behalf.
Q: Why should a military student feel comfortable choosing Saint Leo for higher education?
A: I would say this is the very reason our office exists. We want everyone to feel comfortable and have the best chance at success when they enroll at Saint Leo. Some universities offer an office like this but the majority do not.
Military members and veterans will tell you that a big reason they don't succeed academically is because they feel like a fish out of water. This is because there is no go-between or person to help them transition into an academic life or how to balance academics while still serving in the military. Having that human commonality with someone they can relate to really makes a huge difference.
Q: What are the benefits of having faculty and staff who are military veterans themselves?
A: There are so many benefits to this.
When I talk to our veteran students, they're always referencing certain professors who served, and I think this gives them a unique level of comfort to talk with their professors both in and out of class.Veteran faculty members can understand what it's like having a certain lifestyle. Being in the military means a very regimented schedule with a clear mission, goals and lots of structure. Sometimes freedom is the hardest thing for veterans to navigate, and those with experience at this can be extremely helpful.
Vets are always thinking in first-person plural rather than first-person singular because of the teams they worked on in the military. This is another area in which our faculty and staff can help these students approach their courses a bit differently so that they do focus on themselves while still maintaining a team-oriented mindset to collaborate with fellow students when it's appropriate.
Q: What are the benefits of earning a college degree if someone is an active-duty military member?
A: For those who are lucky enough to do this, the possibilities a college education opens up for someone are almost immeasurable.
First off, getting a degree before leaving the military can help a person more easily transition into a civilian job.
Plus, having a degree on your resume along with your military experience is a great combination that is very hard to beat.
Finally, we're seeing more and more employers that are sponsoring both active-duty members and veterans. So, as soon as they either get out of the military or finish their degree, they'll have a job waiting for them.
Q: How is military service factored into the credits for earning a college degree?
A: It usually depends on the branch of service. Most institutions will consider accepting certain courses a military member or veteran has taken within a certain branch and may be able to apply them toward course credits. For example, courses on physical education, geography, and leadership that one takes in the military could qualify as credit hours within a college degree program.
Q: Claiming military benefits to apply toward tuition can be a bit confusing. How can Saint Leo help students in this process?
A: We have a Student Financial Support Center to assist all students with financial aid. We have several staff members who are very familiar with the various forms of the GI Bill and tuition assistance (TA). Keep in mind that TA benefits vary from branch to branch. Our staff will walk a student through the entire process of identifying their benefits to actually claiming them.
We also have a list of endowed scholarships earmarked specifically for active-duty members and veteran students.
Plus, we have an emergency fund available to those with specific needs outside of school-related expenses. For example, if a student's car breaks down and they can't get to campus, we can assist them.
I should mention that we have the most generous version of the GI Bill now that we've ever had. It has the most payout and is very easy to use. It even comes with a housing allowance and can be gifted from a parent to a dependent child or spouse to spouse.
Q: How can current or prospective students contact Saint Leo's Office of Military Affairs and Services?
A: You can contact the office by phone at 352-588-6703 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact associate director Mark Westbrook directly, you can e-mail him at email@example.com or call the Newport News Education Office at 757-249-0390.