When Phoebe Comeau discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012 after nine years of service with the last four years as a weather forecaster on the Japanese island of Okinawa, she knew exactly what she wanted for herself: she wanted to be a marriage and family counselor for military service members and their families.
“I’ve seen families broken apart from deployment, and I want to help ease the burdens that are a part of military culture,” she said. “Through social work, I will be able to help military family life. It’s a big circle.”
Getting the required advanced degrees became her next priority. And after receiving her associate degree from Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, Comeau began the social work program at University of North Carolina at Wilmington in fall 2014.
Over the last five years, the University of North Carolina system has ramped up its attention to veterans like Comeau, as well as active-duty personnel, reservists and National Guard members, plus their spouses and dependents.
The system-wide effort to reach service members and their families started in earnest in 2010 with the formation of a working group called UNC SERVES, comprised of faculty, staff and students from across the University system. The group developed a set of steps the system could take to improve enrollment, retention and graduation of current and former service members.
The UNC system’s 2013-2018 strategic plan, “Our Time, Our Future: the UNC Compact with North Carolina,” carries forward the UNC SERVES recommendations as part of its push to increase the portion of North Carolinians with at least bachelor’s degrees from the current 26 percent to 32 percent by 2018. By 2025, North Carolina aims to be one of the top ten most educated states, with 37 percent of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“In 2010, we were playing catch-up because many veterans were getting the post-911 GI Bill and entering the higher-education market nationwide,” said Ann Marie Beall, UNC director of military education.
“At that time, we realized we had a few campuses that were very involved with the military population, and that’s where all of the population was looking to,” she said. “Now we have a more even playing field among all of our campuses. It’s not just two or three of our campuses prepared; every single one of our campuses knows this population now, supports this population now, is fully aware of all the aspects of this population now."
UNCW Military Resource Center
Setting the Foundation
In June 2013, the UNC Board of Governors institutionalized its commitment to the success of military-affiliated students by passing the Military Student Success Policy, which set the framework for the University to establish a comprehensive network of services for military-affiliated students.
Thanks to the policy, as of this fall, all 16 universities consider any person who has served three or more years in the armed services a transfer student in the admissions process, eliminating the need for requirements like SAT or ACT scores, which once acted as roadblocks to higher education for those who had served in the military. (Under this agreement, the service branch is considered the transfer institution of record, and the veteran’s military learning is counted as academic credit.)
Additionally, the University added questions about military status to both undergraduate and graduate applications to begin tracking and collecting data on military-affiliated students, like academic performance and graduation rates.
The University has put a number of other tools in place to serve veterans and service members, including the following:
- It launched the North Carolina Military Educational Positioning System, or “NCMEPS,” a website that enables military-affiliated students to explore North Carolina's two- and four-year public and private higher education options. In addition to offering resources that help military students navigate the application, admission and enrollment processes, the site provides tools that help them stay in school, graduate and pursue their career goals afterward.
- This fall, nine campuses will begin a two-year pilot of a virtual veterans center called UVIZE, which connects veterans with mentors and their peers on campuses. Through the program, student veterans — and even prospective student veterans — can join their peers on participating campuses in discussion groups around majors, extracurricular activities, clubs and organizations. “We’re looking for ways for veterans to connect,” Beall said.
- The University has also begun promoting self-paced distance education classes offered through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education. These flexible college-credit courses, which meet general education requirements, enable military-affiliated students to earn credits while on active duty that they can then transfer to any UNC institution.
- The University positioned UNC military academic advisors at Army Post Fort Bragg and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune to represent all 16 UNC universities and serve as recruiters, academic advisors and ambassadors to the military communities. As the UNC Military Academic Adviser at the Camp Lejeune office, Ashley Adamovage advises 23 to 28 current and prospective students each day, about 400 a month, and holds periodic office hours at other air stations as well. Adamovage uniquely understands the issues people associated with the military face because she is a Marine Corps spouse. “I want my advisees to understand that I sympathize with them on a lot of levels, and if I can’t sympathize with them, I empathize with them,” Adamovage said. “I love my job. I say it on a daily basis. I love the fact that I get to come in and work with our service members, because at the end of the day, we owe them everything.” She was recently named president of Southeastern Council on Military Education (SECOME) board of directors.
Dawn Whetstone, Veteran Affairs Coordinator at NCCU, speaks with students in the campuses Veterans Center.
Campus Efforts to Ease Culture Shock
Comeau, whose husband Timothy is an active-duty Marine currently based at Camp Lejeune, lives near the base, in Richlands, North Carolina, almost 70 miles from UNCW.
On days she has class on campus rather than at UNCW Onslow County Extension site near her home, she wakes up at 6 am, readies her three children for the day and drops them off at daycare and school before hitting the highway for the hour-and-15 minute drive to campus.
She feels very aware of the differences between herself and the majority of students, who entered college directly after high school, live on or near campus and do not have families.
“It’s sometimes a culture shock when a nontraditional student goes into the University system,” she said. “I’m 30 years old, and most of the other students in my classes are 22.”
Navy veteran Dawn Whetstone, who was hired last year as the veterans’ affairs coordinator at North Carolina Central University in Durham, said many veterans have a tough time transitioning into academia. Coming out of the military, many struggle with no longer being part of a tight group and having to live off VA benefits rather than a full-time salary, Whetstone said. And because they carry with them years of life experience — and in many cases, traumatic life experiences — many struggle to figure out how to relate to professors and classmates.
Over her first year in the position, Whetstone has expanded her role at NCCU from simply administering and certifying government benefits to organizing community-building activities, seminars, workshops and career-oriented networking events for the military population.
Whetstone is currently planning a series of community-service activities to engage veterans in the coming year. “I want to address camaraderie,” she said. She also plans to start developing various training sessions to help faculty, staff and students better understand where student veterans are coming from and what they need.
“I definitely feel like we’ve made some headway in the last year,” said Whetstone, adding that with about 430 military-affiliated students enrolled, NCCU currently has about 100 more than last fall. “I’m very excited about the future and what that looks like for the office, as well as the school, and even beyond that, the actual community.”
Like NCCU, many individual schools have stepped up to offer recommended-but-not-required services to military-affiliated students, Beall said. For example, this fall, UNC-Chapel Hill hired its first ever student veteran assistance coordinator to serve as the point-person for military-affiliated students. And UNCW opened its first ever Military Student Resource Center, which is equipped with tables, a couch and chairs, a television and computer, a kitchen and handicapped-accessible bathrooms and provides military students a place to relax, study and gather between classes.
Comeau frequents the lounge between classes. She appreciates that it has enabled her to connect with other veterans and prevents her from having to spend between-class time alone in her car.
“The resource lounge brings us back to the culture of camaraderie, teamwork, helping each other out, but in the university community,” Comeau said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I’m not alone.’”
Beall is pleased with the work the University has accomplished for its military-affiliated students over the last five years, but she wants the system to continue pushing forward.
“I think North Carolina has done a really good job, but we want to be ahead of the curve,” Beall said. “We’re in a solid place with many things we’ve done, but let’s look at where we want to be five years from now.”
Story by Christina Cooke, Freelance Writer
Photos contributed by UNC Wilmington and North Carolina Central University
Homepage caption: UNCW student military veteran Phoebe Comeau relaxes at UNCW Military Resource Center between classes. A marin veteran with 81/2 years of service Phoebe Comeau is working towards her Bachelors in Social Work at UNCW. Photo by Jeff Janowski
Published November 9, 2015