Throughout its rich history, Saint Leo University has been a leader in providing innovative higher education programs and other support services to members of the United States military, veterans, military spouses, and their families.

One such 21st-century supportive program is the Military & Family Club. This online support group is part of Saint Leo's varied list of a dozen online associations and clubs geared toward both online degree program students and those taking courses at its Education Centers around the country. However, all Saint Leo students are welcome to participate in these groups.

Benefits of Supporting Active-Duty and Military Family Students

Jessica Graves, the associate director of WorldWide Student Life for Saint Leo, explains the idea behind starting up this unique online support group for military-oriented students several years ago.

"We greatly appreciate all military-connected students and military family members choosing to earn their degrees with us, but we also understand the challenges of balancing military and academic goals," Graves explains. "The club puts personal, professional, and academic development at the forefront and exists to further provide students with resources to help them reach their goals."

Dr. Luke McClees, the director of the Office of Military Affairs and Services at Saint Leo University, has worked closely with Graves to revamp this group since he joined the university last year. He agrees that there are numerous benefits to making such a club available.

"Communicating with one another, helping keep one another accountable as coursework becomes more challenging, and helping each other navigate personal and academic growth are just a few of the ways this club can benefit our students," McClees says.

Meetings are held online monthly on the second Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. Topics covered in this club are all relevant to a wide range of students who may be currently serving, previously served, or have a spouse, parent, or child serving. Examples include:

  • Library resources
  • Scholarships for military students
  • Military benefits and how they can be used beyond a bachelor's degree
  • Top Up and other funding options
  • - Study tips and how to balance coursework with military service

"The Military and Family Club has always been available to all of our students," McClees explains. "Students can participate wherever they are, and students can even watch recordings of prior Club meetings. This is what truly sets this club apart."

In addition to this online support group, McClees notes that Saint Leo is also home to a Student Veterans of America chapter.

Featured Speakers in This Online Support Group

This year, the club has had several accomplished guest speakers attend its live online events to present a variety of useful information and relay stories of military service that often resonate with students.

"We wanted to ensure that our military-connected students who choose to take part in the live meetings really walk away with something valuable," Graves says. "Dr. McClees is well-connected within the military community and has secured several high-profile speakers to share their expertise in a virtual, interactive environment. Thus far, we have had several more live attendees this year in comparison to previous years and we hope to continue to build on this participation."

One notable guest this past spring was Jon Macaskill, a retired Navy SEAL commander who now helps veterans by teaching them mindfulness and meditation. In addition to veterans, he works with all types of communities through his own consulting business.

"Speaking with anyone about these practices is a huge passion of mine," Macaskill explains. "Being able to speak to military members is another passion of mine. Combining these two passions makes speaking to this group especially rewarding."

He explains how he got into this initiative.

"I have a personal story of how I found mindfulness and meditation and the positive effects they had on my life," Macaskill says. "I wanted to actually start a nonprofit that taught veterans these life-changing and life-saving practices."

But he later discovered Veteran's PATH, a nonprofit that supports military veterans through a variety of health and wellness practices like mindfulness, meditation, and outdoor activities to help them achieve peace in their lives. The PATH acronym stands for peace, acceptance, transformation, and honor. Macaskill now serves as the deputy executive director of the nonprofit.

This year, some of the other guest speakers in the Military and Family Club have included:

  • Dr. Crystal Kyle, a 10-year U.S. Army veteran who found peace and a purpose in farming and now shares this passion with other veterans to help them manage stress
  • Dr. Eric Hodges, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and professor of interdisciplinary social sciences who has studied veteran reintegration into society and how military skills can transfer to civic engagement.
  • Michael J. Kim, a psychoanalyst, Iraq war veteran, and former Friar monk who is an expert on post-military adjustment and religion.

"We wanted to make every month's guest someone interesting from whom students could learn something above and beyond what they were studying at Saint Leo," McClees says. "This year, all guests have been military-affiliated and have different professional backgrounds that highlight what one can accomplish professionally. We have also had guests that share ways students can improve their quality of life and add to their life skills."

Balancing a Degree with Military Service

McClees, a Marine Corps veteran who also saw combat action, offers up some words of wisdom to those who are currently serving and earning a college degree simultaneously.

"Take both your service and academic work seriously," he says. "Find the right balance for your life, but give each of these commitments your full effort. More and more employers are actively seeking military experience, in addition to higher education. This combination is recognized as a powerful asset in today's fast-paced global economy."

Macaskill offers up some similar advice on this balancing act.

"I recommend speaking with your unit leaders and making them aware you are pursuing your degree," he says. "Most leaders will understand you are working to better yourself and in doing so, they too will reap the benefits, so they normally will allow you more flexibility in your schedule when you're pursuing a degree. That said, your military commitment comes first."

From Macaskill's viewpoint, it's imperative for military members and veterans to earn a degree.

"Eventually, having a college degree will become necessary for any higher level job, whether that's in the military or outside of it."

He points to the G.I. Bill and the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill as being fantastic financial resources to help military students pursue their higher education dreams so they can enjoy a fulfilling career either continuing to serve or as a civilian.