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UCM Welcomes Those Who Serve

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From combat to classroom
By Jeff Murphy

Looking down the rows of chairs in a University of Central Missouri classroom, it is hard to comprehend the personal challenges each student brings to his or her journey to higher education. One student feels the pressure of being the first family member to seek a degree. Another wonders how to juggle classes with a full-time job and children. And somewhere in between, there's a person who once wore his or her country's uniform to combat, only to realize that the transformation from soldier to student could be one of life's greatest battles.

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Zachary Lani

Since the federal government expanded the GI Bill three years ago for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is estimated that some 600,000 former soldiers are now looking to colleges and universities nationwide to help them make the transition to civilian life. With additional downsizing in the military, thousands more may soon turn to higher education to prepare for new careers, paying close attention to those institutions willing to meet their diverse and unique needs.

The University of Central Missouri is gaining a reputation for being such an institution, and the new Military and Veterans Success Center, located on the first floor of the Elliott Union, is where many service men and women turn for help. They go there to access computers, study, learn more about the university's special Military Tuition Package, get assistance with Veterans Administration benefits, and in some cases, seek therapy from the Kansas City Vets Center. Many of them also stop by the center simply to enjoy a cup of coffee and conversation with those who share a common bond.

"The veterans community is an honor-based society. They are about actions, not just words," said Lynn Lowder, a 16-year military officer, combat veteran and businessman who was named director of military and veteran services in 2012. In his new role, which encompasses the success center, he has become well acquainted with many of the students who use the facility. He also understands what matters to them the most: "education, health care and jobs. All the rest is fluff," Lowder insisted. "They don't need any free beer or another parade.

"A lot of these students have seen serious combat. They've done multiple tours, and they're leaving the service during a bad economy, so this is a time when they are trying to get situated back in the game and to move on with the rest of their lives. The problem with all of that is when you go deep into combat, it's not easy to get on with the rest of your life. You just don't wave a magic wand and say 'okay, now I'm going to be just like everyone else in the civilian world.'"

Since it opened Nov. 11, 2011, the Military and Veterans Success Center has played an important role in helping soldiers to make the transition from military service to the classroom. A growing number of them who are still struggling with the scars of war say they have found a caring friend in the center's coordinator, Delilah Nichols. She not only takes care of the routine services in the office, but also arranges counseling visits with the Kansas City Vet Center and has made personal visits with some of these students off campus to show her support.

Lowder smiles when he talks about Nichols' positive impact on center visitors. He refers to her as the "mama bear," who is always there to offer a nurturing hand and open ear to her "cubs."

"I look at the Military and Veterans Success Center as a mission field or healing center," Nichols said. "Students come in with these blinders on, especially the combat veterans, and they don't really want to talk to anybody ... but in the center, when they hear other combat veterans talking about their experiences, they start listening. And pretty soon they start talking, and when they see other students getting help, and they see success stories, they have hope."

Alejandro Arias and Zachary "Zack" Lani know exactly what she means. To other students around them, Arias and Lani may just blend into the classroom -- two clean-cut young men concerned about getting a research paper finished on time or making a passing grade on the next exam. What lies beneath the surface, however, is much deeper. Both have haunting memories of an environment their classmates will likely never experience.


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