With more than one-third of its student population being affiliated with the military, Saint Leo University is claiming top honors among private, not-for-profit universities as well as No. 1 in the Southeast in Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2021, which was released this week. Among the 300 participating universities, Saint Leo University ranked 11th in the nation in the Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2021.

These rankings recognize the university's commitment to educating military personnel, veterans, and their families wherever they may be—even if they are deployed. The university also was No. 1 in 2019 in the nontraditional and online universities category, when the publication named Military Times Best for Vets: Colleges 2020. In 2018, Saint Leo ranked fourth in the nation and was eighth in 2017.

Saint Leo earned the top spots based on Military Times' annual survey, which assessed more than 300 schools' veteran- and military-student services and rates of academic achievement as well as a detailed review of public data collected by federal agencies.

"We are so proud of this honor and its validation of our commitment to the military and student-veteran population," said Saint Leo University President Jeffrey Senese. "It is our obligation as well as our pleasure to provide a high quality, private school education to these students who now are serving their country or have completed their military service. We support their families, too, and are grateful for the sacrifices they make."

The university's military-connected population numbers 6,092, which includes members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, National Guard members, retired military officers and enlisted veterans, military spouses, dependents, and others. In addition to at its residential campus in St. Leo, FL, north of Tampa, students are educated at 16 teaching locations in five states, including many located on military bases, and through the university's Center for Online Learning. Saint Leo also offers Military Resource Centers located at University Campus and the Tampa (FL) and Savannah (GA) education centers.

Serving Military, Veterans, Families

There are several reasons that Saint Leo University is unique for veterans and military-connected populations. Historically, Saint Leo University served veterans and military personnel during the post-Vietnam era when many college campuses removed anything military-related. This history gave Saint Leo much more experience in assisting the military than other universities which didn't start until after recent military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Dr. Ernest "Luke" McClees, director of the Office of Military Affairs and Services (OMAS).

"In the contemporary Saint Leo University, we have a unified stakeholder approach that is an example of veteran and military-connected inclusivity," McClees said. "While we do have an office dedicated to removing barriers to education for these populations, everyone in the university is mindful and helpful of our veteran and military-connected people. From learning environments, activity programming, partnerships, and community connections, to veteran and military-connected alumni focus, Saint Leo University is multilayered and decentralized in our approach to inclusion."

Saint Leo University also offers robust programming for its military-affiliated population. In the past academic year, weekly events were held including Mindful Monday, which featured guided meditation via Zoom; Transition Tuesday at which McClees answered questions and shared best practices for transition from the military; and Hang 10 Friday, a fun competition to relieve stress, build camaraderie, and maintain fitness in which participants take part in a pull-up challenge.

In addition, Saint Leo offered monthly and special programs including guest speakers and Veterans Appreciation Week. The office also collaborates with Team Red White & Blue (Team RWB) on connecting veterans to their community through virtual physical and social activities.

Helping Financially

Saint Leo University also assists student-veterans through targeted funding such as the Veteran Student Emergency Fund, which provides emergency financial assistance for veterans. This program is unique in higher education and ensures that veterans can continue their education even when real-life crises occur. Donations may be made to Military Education Excellence.

The Saint Leo University Alumni Association Board of Directors also is creating an endowed scholarship to assist student-veterans. The need for this became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, McClees said, as he heard from students about their needs.

Veteran Studies Degree

Now, Saint Leo is breaking new ground among American colleges and universities by creating the first undergraduate degree devoted to veteran studies. A veteran studies minor also is available in this emerging field.

Students in the program will study the distinctive lives and cultures formed by military service and by retirement from service—a part of American culture that is often not understood except in shallow or stereotypic ways, McClees noted. The first course in the Bachelor of Arts program will be offered in the Fall 2021 Semester at University Campus, giving currently enrolled and new students the opportunity to explore in the program. The degree program is open to all students, not only those who have a military background.

"This degree will offer civilians an avenue to complete a picture of the complexities surrounding the veteran population," McClees said. "This way, Saint Leo University will be educating people who can better improve their organizations or future employer's approach to including veterans with care and efficacy."

More information about the rankings may be found at https://colleges.militarytimes.com.