Here are some remarkable facts about military veterans at UAA:
• Nearly 2,100 veterans studied here last year
• Veteran enrollment and use of VA education benefits has climbed 350 percent between 2009 and 2014
• That fact alone represents $5 million in revenue to UAA
Pretty interesting, right?
• Veterans will have a special living community in the UAA residence halls beginning in the fall
• UAA will add a campus monument honoring all veterans
• A special orientation for veterans this year is planned for Friday, Aug. 8
• Many veterans seek technical degrees in college, based on their technical experience in the military
• Case in point: Nearly 60 percent of UAA’s aviation students are military veterans
I learned all that after spending just a half hour with Nichole Grunwald, the veterans assistant in UAA’s Military and Veteran Community Resources center for students, located on the bottom floor of the Wells Fargo Sports Complex.
Coming full circle
This is a new job for Nichole, who graduated last December with her bachelor’s in Hospitality and Restaurant Management (and happily “walked” in May.) But she started this new role March 31, 2014. It might be hard to find anyone anywhere better suited to the job of making a home for veterans on campus. Saying that Nichole has come full circle would be a mild way of describing her past few years here.
I first became aware of Nichole after reading an April 2011 news account in The Northern Light about a struggle she experienced in a marketing class trying to reschedule a final exam that conflicted with her military duty. She sought, and UAA responded, with a better solution.
Next, I encountered her as the new president of a Student Veterans Club. She didn’t found the club, but at her first meeting members asked her to be vice president. At the next meeting, they asked her to be president. Her obvious strong commitment to improving the veteran experience at UAA resulted in this introductory podcast, also recorded in 2011, highlighting her thoughts as a returning veteran.
Over the next few years, I frequently saw her completely engaged in campus events: winning the Homecoming Shopping Cart Parade, or helping to stage commemorative events for Veterans Day on campus. So it was especially fun to sit down with her in the resource center and catch up. I was quickly reminded of how clear-thinking and ambitious she is about making UAA a good home for veteran students.
What is the most important thing on your mind to convey to your audience, I asked. Her answer came easily: “That [this center] is here, and that this job exists,” she said. “It happened really fast, and I am just amazed about the potential for growth.”
First on her agenda is more room for the resource center. “This space is the starter kit,” she said with a smile. “We can expect that the enrollment of veterans is going to increase over the next couple of years.”
She’s very inspired by how the UAA Multicultural Center uses its space for the students it serves. That center is located off the atrium lobby in Rasmuson Hall. There, students have a place to come in and study, occasional potlucks are routine, and where visitors pick up on a palpable sense of family. She wants all of that for veterans.
“I try,” she says, pointing to a tiny desk in a corner of her cramped office where a visiting student can perch with a laptop. “I don’t turn them away, but we need more room.”
In her podcast back in 2011, she said one of her biggest concerns was watching veterans fall through the cracks. After a few years in the military, many are finely tuned to following directions from superiors. A college campus doesn’t work that way; new students often find themselves on a hunt for information and directions. That’s a transition for veterans that others might not realize, Nichole said. Starting three years ago, she took many under her wing and offered any informal advice she had.
Now, that’s essentially her job. “I couldn’t be happier,” she said. “The purpose of my job is to increase the quality of life for military veterans on campus. Make it feel like a veteran-friendly campus. I have a special focus on student life. I really want veterans to find a home here.”
Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement
University of Alaska Anchorage