Veterans find a home at Washburn

Chris BowersAs early as the first grade, Chris Bowers can remember developing his love of history while growing up in Beloit, Kansas.

Weekend trips to historical sites with his family and a passion for historical books heavily influenced his desire to join the Army in 1987.

Retiring in 2010, he found himself bored and unchallenged and decided to follow his childhood interest in history by working on his degree at Washburn University. He enrolled in a First Year Experience class with traditional students.

“Here I was at 44 years old working through this class with 18 and 19 year olds,” he said. “I was shown a lot of respect and was asked a lot of questions, but I could tell not everyone was in the same situation I was.”

In the fall of 2015, after working with administrators and faculty, Bowers served as a peer educator to a First Year Experience class for veterans only. The class helps students get to know Washburn, and allows them to connect and share experiences related to the military and translate those to collegiate life.

Fostering faculty and student interaction is important to Washburn, so veteran Gary Bayens, associate dean, School of Applied Studies and professor, criminal justice, was tapped to teach the class.

“It was a learning experience for me as well – finding out what each veteran did in the military,” said Bayens, who served in the Marines in the 1970s. “But we all had the same understanding of the mission, team efforts, self-discipline and leadership.”

All lessons, according to Bayens, that can be applied to being a successful student. However, support and leadership from administrative staff and the community are also critical to make sure students complete their degrees and receive a quality education.

Randy Pembrook, vice president, academic affairs, said one of the biggest challenges is working with government benefit programs to ensure each student has the resources he or she needs to start school.

“We have many veterans who want to start on their degree right away, but it may take a few months for all of their military benefits to be processed. We work very hard to accommodate veterans in those instances,” Pembrook said.

An information resource, the Veterans Success Center opened in Mabee Library in fall 2015 and is working to build a collection of class textbooks for veterans to use if there is a delay in accessing their benefits. Bowers, who works in the center, helped a student who had just separated from the Air Force. While the student had enrolled in school, he hadn’t applied for the GI Bill yet, so they connected him with the Department of Veterans Affairs so he could start receiving benefits.

“This generation of veterans rivals that of World War II in its population,” said Bowers. “The more we get through college, the more of an impact it will have on the rest of the country.”

Bowers said Washburn is critical to providing that quality education.

“It’s really a small community here,” said Bowers, who hopes to earn his master’s degree in the future. “I have easy access to professors, and I know they are going to read the history papers I write. It’s not going to be read by a graduate assistant.”

A unique partnership between GO Topeka, Washburn University

In 2015, GO Topeka began working with Washburn University and Washburn Tech to support veterans’ education. After collaborating with Randy Pembrook, vice president, academic affairs, Alan Bearman, dean of libraries, and Gary Bayens, associate dean, School of Applied Studies and professor, criminal justice, created the Veterans Success Center in Mabee Library.

The center is staffed on a regular basis to assist veterans adjusting to college and to connect them with other veterans, tutors and veteran success workshops on campus. GO Topeka, with the backing of the Joint Economic Development Organization in Topeka, made a donation to fund the center with the motivation that veterans will stay in Topeka to work.

“Veterans are great citizens and employees, and when they come into a community, they are a wonderful addition,” said Scott Smathers, vice president, economic development for GO Topeka. “Topeka businesses are looking for quality employees, and with that military skill set there, it will be a win-win for everybody.”

Smathers said he is intrigued by the group’s idea to include weekly counseling services offered by Department of Veterans Affairs professionals to assist student veterans.

“Having a support network is very important to any student, and I think it is going to be especially beneficial for veterans,” Smathers said.

Smathers said GO Topeka’s partnership with Washburn University and Washburn Tech has been productive not only because of a shared interest in workforce development but also because Washburn has made collaboration so easy. For example, the group was able to put together the Veterans Success Center in just a few months because the University was able to move quickly.

“We all have limited resources, and Washburn goes out of its way to make it work. They do a great job of training and have a strong reputation with companies,” Smathers said of the partnership. “The sizes of Washburn Tech and Washburn University allow them to be more nimble, which gives us the ability to get more done.”