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Veterans finding paths to careers at Warner College of Natural Resources

November 11, 2013
by Bryony Wardell

The transition from military service member to college student civilian has many challenges. But more than 80 military veteran students in the Warner College of Natural Resources are overcoming those challenges to pursue their passion for natural resources.

Warner College of Natural Resources student Allen Gilbert

“On behalf of Warner College of Natural Resources, I would like to wish a happy Veterans Day to our veteran students, faculty, staff and alumni – and to all those who have served our country,” said Warner College of Natural Resources Dean Joyce Berry. “We owe so much gratitude to our veterans, and it is an honor to help our veteran students who have chosen to continue serving their country through a career in natural resources.”

Finding career parallels

Natural resources veteran students come from all branches and backgrounds, but all have in common the desire to do meaningful work that in many cases is inspired by their military experience.

“I’ve been deployed in wars related to oil and resource inequality, and I’ve served in humanitarian efforts to aid areas devastated by natural disasters and famine. It makes sense that now I am pursuing a degree that will allow me try and understand and fix some those problems,” said veteran student Bill Rasmussen. After serving for 31 years in the U.S. Navy and Army as a medic, Rasmussen is a senior studying ecosystem science and sustainability.

Warner College degree programs are a natural fit for many veterans with an interest in science and nature because they provide hands-on learning and field work in therapeutic natural environments.

More importantly, the degrees lead to career opportunities that include many federal agencies which have initiatives and hiring policies dedicated to supporting veteran employment as established by a Presidential Executive Order in 2009. Feds Hire Vets is a resource website run by The U.S. Office of Personnel Management which offers a comprehensive wealth of information on employment programs, transition services and training opportunities.

Jon Wardell served in the U.S. Army for 4.5 years as a sergeant with 11B/82nd Airborne Infantry, Fort Bragg, NC. Wardell graduated with his B.S. in natural resources management with a minor in fisheries in 2012 and is currently a graduate student pursuing a Master's of Tourism Management degree.Veteran friendly university

CSU is celebrated as one of the top military friendly universities in the country, and serves a growing veteran student body across all of its majors and colleges.

The University partners with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program to grant in-state tuition waivers to non-resident U.S. military veterans and their designated dependents. The University also offers a dedicated team of specialized staff and resources through its Adult Learner and Veteran’s Service Office. The ALVS provides a full range of services for veterans to assist them in transitioning into college life and succeeding academically. CSU also has student organizations dedicated to improving the student experiences for veterans, including the CSU Student Veterans Organization and SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society which is based at CSU.

Facing new challenges

Veteran students face a variety of unique obstacles when coming back to school. The decision to leave the structure and stability of military life for the unknown civilian world is difficult and can seem daunting. In addition to the inherent academic challenges that a college education presents, going back to a formal education system, overcoming physical and mental injuries, managing a home and budget, and feeling out of place or socially isolated requires an extra level of determination to overcome.

“Coming from such a desensitized combat environment, my attitude and humor was much different from many traditional students on campus.  Learning to bring it down a few notches definitely helped me seem more welcoming and fit in socially on campus,” said CSU veteran student and alumnus Jon Wardell. Wardell served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army with the 82nd Airborne from 2005 to 2009. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in natural resources management in 2012 and is now working on a master’s degree in tourism management.

 “Being a student again is a big transition. I went from commanding a group of military servicemen on a ship, to being in a classroom with many students who are experiencing life for the first time away from home,” said CSU veteran student, Rick Potter. “Academically, the advances in education and technology also require some catching up.” Potter served in the U.S. Navy from 1999 to 2007 as an officer on submarines and minesweepers. He is now working on his master’s degree in geosciences and hopes to work as a hydro physicist on groundwater sustainability and conservation.

“The military is a place where the moment you move somewhere or do something new you have ‘instar-friends’ whose families will all go through the same thing for as long as we were serving together,” said CSU veteran student Allen Gilbert. “That connection is a powerful thing. It's one of the things I gave up by leaving the military, and it just takes getting used to.” Gilbert has served in the U.S. Army since 2000 and was a battery commander. He is now working on his second bachelor’s degree in natural resource management and hopes to work in ecological restoration.

Jonathon Colby served as a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps and his MOS was Mortar Forward Observer. He was stationed in Camp Lejeune N.C. and served multiple deployments in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Jonathon is a sophomore studying forestry and his goal is to work for the National Forest Service.A successful mission – excelling in the classroom

Warner College veteran students are excelling with above average GPAs, and are determined to be competitive in the job market.

“I knew it was going to be challenging and that I would have to brush up on a lot of my studies,” said CSU veteran student Scott Walker.  “But after serving in the military, I knew I had enough experience and will power to make it as a civilian and as a student.” Walker is in his senior year as a geology major. He actively served in the U.S. Navy as an airborne weapons system operator from 2006 to 2011 and is currently in the Navy Reserves.

Some of the contributing factors to the success of veteran students include the support from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which covers all tuition expenses for both in-state and nonresident veterans at CSU, and the ALVS transition resources and success programs.

“The veteran services staff at CSU are fantastic. They know how the VA works and they make it easy to get the help you need,” said CSU veteran student Amy Goodrich. Goodrich served in the U.S. Army from 1997 to 2002 as a Spanish/English linguist for military intelligence and as a recruiter. She is currently working on her master’s in rangeland ecology, and plans to work on post disturbance restoration for dam removal projects.

Additionally, students often find it easier to excel once they get into their major classes and can feel at home in their college. For natural resources students, Warner College has a smaller size, culture of community, and passionate professors who often take a vested interest in helping students succeed academically and personally.

“I am ‘home’ in a college where I am working on what I am passionate about, and I don’t feel underestimated,” said Goodrich.

“Ever since I was young, there were two places you would find me: in the woods or on the water,” said Wardell. “Being a student at CSU, I was fortunate enough to have some of the best professors in the natural resource fields - it was and is a great experience.”

Advice from veteran students to prospective veteran students

  • “When looking at degrees, ask what the requirements are so you can map out a plan that is feasible. Then, ask for help to get where you want to go. The financial aid and resources are there – you just have to ask.” Allen Gilbert, Army veteran and reservist working on a second bachelor’s degree in natural resources management.
  • “Don’t think that your career opportunities are limited to being in law enforcement or emergency services. It is amazing to see the similarities between job descriptions for natural resources and those in the military. I think it is a career option that could really benefit veterans and also provides benefits of working in therapeutic and often scenic environments.” Jon Wardell, Army veteran and Warner College alumnus and master’s student.
  • “Be determined in finding the program you want to study in and don’t let anyone try to influence your path because of what they might think it means to come from the military. Utilize veteran services that are available and look for ways to engage with veteran student organizations and your professors.”Amy Goodrich, Army veteran and master’s student studying rangeland ecology.
  • “Meet with the ALVS or veterans office. They are so helpful because they understand your background. Also, tutors are instrumental.”Scott Walker, Navy veteran and reservist earning a bachelor’s degree in geology.