Penn State's commitment to military/veteran students stands out nationally

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State has been consistently ranked as a military/veteran-friendly school by numerous publications, including Military Times, GI Jobs, and Military Advanced Education. This year, Penn State's World Campus undergraduate programs were ranked No. 1 in the country for veterans by U.S. News and World Report.

Ted Timmerman, associate director of the Office of Veterans Programs at University Park, and Ginny Newman, assistant director of military education for Penn State's World Campus, along with their dedicated colleagues, have worked hard to make it that way. Timmerman and Newman have a combined 42 years of experience in helping service members and their families get their degrees.

“We are at the top of the pack compared to others,” Timmerman said. “We’ve had a veterans outreach office since the 1980’s and even further back than that, we’ve had someone on campus looking out for veterans since after World War II.”

Timmerman and his colleagues in the Office of Veterans Programs are available to provide support to veterans, and their primary focus is the certification of the GI Bill.

“One of our most important roles is to help students receive their GI Bill benefits,” he said. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is very complex, and there are more than 900 veterans using it at Penn State campuses, with another 1900 studying online through the World Campus. Depending on a variety of circumstances, the bill can cover education costs, housing and book allowances.

It’s that dedication to keeping veterans in school, along with the offering of counseling and outreach services, that distinguish Penn State as a military/veteran-friendly school. The student outreach section of the office is staffed by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs work-study students who contact prospective students seeking more information. They are veterans talking to other veterans, Timmerman explained, and the message they try to convey is, ‘I’m doing it, so you can, too, and we can assist you.’

Additionally, three of the six full-time staff members are certified in counseling and regularly perform what Timmerman calls "triage counseling." Students come in to talk about the GI Bill, for example, and if the staff senses that there are underlying problems, they have the skills to go a little deeper and connect them to the appropriate resources. It has been an issue that they’ve dealt with, especially in the several years following the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“A guy does two tours, and his mind’s not really where it needs to be,” Timmerman said. “You can be knocking down doors in Fallujah one day and two days later be back here on the Penn State campus.”

This is becoming less common, however, and now there are more transitional issues to deal with, such as the age difference between veteran students and the typical students on campus.

World Campus, on the other hand, works with students from all over the globe, including those currently deployed to Afghanistan. With current technology, it is possible for soldiers to be working 40 hours a week and still taking classes, Timmerman said.

That’s where Newman and her colleagues come in, providing support programs like military admissions help and academic advising specifically for service members and their spouses. Like Timmerman’s team, most of the World Campus military advisors are veterans themselves, Newman said, and can understand what the students are facing.

World Campus’s physical reach within the military is also impressive and includes the recent establishment of Penn State programs at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, as well as the Army Sergeants Major Academy Fellowship Program at Fort Bliss, Texas, which awards selected fellows with a master’s degree in adult education.

The World Campus also is working to establish scholarships for military and veteran students to help make their education more affordable. The newest, the Keystone Real Estate Group Scholarship for Military Students, will provide financial support to students who were in the armed forces and were wounded while serving on active duty. Another scholarship, developed in honor of retired Capt. Ryan J. McCombie, a Penn State graduate who spent 26 years as a Navy SEAL, is awarded to veterans, active-duty military, reservists or National Guard members based on their academic record or promise.

Above all, everyone on the World Campus military team is passionate about helping service members and veterans, and they feel privileged to support this audience of adult learners, Newman said.

This year, Penn State welcomes the third annual meeting of the Big Ten’s Committee for Institutional Cooperation's (CIC) Military and Veterans Services Peer Group to University Park. All 14 Big Ten schools will be represented at the conference to share best practices and current developments at their respective schools.

One of the programs that emerged from last year’s CIC meeting is a peer-mentoring program, which kicked off at University Park at the beginning of the semester. Modeled after a similar program at another Big Ten school, veteran students who have successfully transitioned into life at University Park are given training to act as student sponsors for others in the transition process. The new program already has four trained sponsors, and has received a positive response.

“We ask what works and get a feel for how different schools run things. Some things we can bring back, some things don’t work here,” Timmerman said.

Another example of CIC’s benefits will appear this spring.

“We learned that most schools offer honor cords at graduation,” Newman said, “So this year at spring commencement, Penn State is planning on giving red, white and blue cords to recognize the military service of our graduates.” Previously, only the Schreyer medal was allowed to be worn with a student’s cap and gown.

Newman won’t be around for this year’s conference, though. She is retiring Oct. 1 after 25 years at Penn State. She will be missed by the community.

“Ginny and I have collaborated on many issues over the years, and she has been a real advocate and asset to the veteran community,” Timmerman said.

Last Updated September 29, 2015