UM recognized by national organization as Military Friendly institution

Members of the Veterans Education and Transition Office at the University of Montana have turned the program around in recent years, earning UM recognition as a Military Friendly institution. Pictured from left to right are program assistant Caitlin Freeman, Director Shawn Grove, and program coordinator Daryl Lee. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

The staff at the Veterans Education and Transition Office have settled into their newly remodeled digs on the University of Montana campus, where they continue to make progress integrating veteran students and providing a strong regiment of academic advising.

Those efforts and more were recognized this week by the national Military Friendly organization, which named UM to its list of Military Friendly Schools.

The organization also recognized the Missoula campus with a Silver award, noting the school’s efforts to support student veterans and their families through a number of financial and academic services.

“Right now, having a free-standing, independent veterans office with a full staff places us miles ahead of a lot of schools in the nation,” office director Shawn Grove said Friday. “The great support our students receive would not be possible without the collaboration of many at UM.”

Military Friendly measures colleges and universities based on a number of best practices in military and veteran education. This year, it recognized 1,200 national schools as Military Friendly institutions, including 14 in Montana.

UM was recognized with a Silver award in the Large Public School category. The organization gave the school a 95 percent rating for academic policies and compliance, an 88 percent rating for culture and commitment, and a 61 percent rating for admissions and orientation.

Overall, Military Friendly said, UM exceeded the benchmark standards as a Military Friendly institution. While the recognition was well received by the VETS Office, Grove said it also shows areas where the program can continue to improve.

“It’s outstanding that we have a Silver rating,” Grove said. “They do a good job showing percentages and areas for improvement. We’re going to start working on our financial aid support for veterans on campus.”

The staff, including program assistant Caitlin Freeman and program coordinator Daryl Lee, a retired Marine who is reading “The Things They Carried” to a group of Missoula students, have joined Grove in turning around a program once in need of attention.

Over the past few years, and in collaboration with UM, the office has revamped several veteran support programs to help students navigate the transition from military service to academic life.

Among the changes implemented since Grove settled in three years ago, academic advisers now work more closely with student veterans. Aided by a grant, the school also invested $100,000 in renovating the VETS Office. It also opened a new satellite office more centrally located on campus.

While overall student enrollment may be down, Grove said, more veteran family members are using their VA benefits – a sign that the school’s veteran outreach efforts are working.

“There’s been more attention in the advising field, where our advisers are more in tune to what our vets are going through as they transition to campus life,” Grove said. “We do annual training every year with our advisers. The biggest thing is the cultural change over the last three years. A lot of programs are working to bridge that gap between vets and the rest of the campus.”

Over the past few years, UM’s efforts to improve its veteran services haven’t gone unrecognized. This past summer, the VA conducted its annual compliance audit and found zero discrepancies for the third year in a row.

In February 2015, UM also was designated as a Purple Heart University, placing it among a handful of select universities in the country to have received the honor. UM remains the only Purple Heart University in the Northwest.

“At UM, we have a special appreciation for our students who have served in the armed forces,” said UM President Royce Engstrom. “We are committed to helping veterans succeed during their time as students here. These latest rankings recognize that commitment.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com