It would be hard for Elli Cline to set her sights any higher.
The Central Michigan University senior from Grand Ledge, Michigan — a U.S. Army veteran graduating with a bachelor's degree in December and starting on her master's degree in biology in August — plans to become a field biologist in wildlife conservation, but that's only the beginning.
"I would love to eventually get a certificate in astrobiology to aid in our exploration for life outside of our planet," Cline said.
“Once you can lead yourself, you’re better capable of
leading other people.” — Elli Cline
Where do you get the self-direction to blaze a trail like that? Same place Adam Betz got the drive to work on his MBA through CMU Online while stationed in Germany, or where Sean Knipp found the resources to pursue a degree he had never anticipated.
For hundreds of current CMU students worldwide, a college education goes hand in hand with military service.
Veterans are not alone
The numbers flow easily from Duane Kleinhardt, direct of CMU's Veterans' Resource Center:
- 59 student veterans on campus, plus 227 enrolled remotely or online.
- 102 on-campus students currently serving (active duty, National Guard and reserves), plus 58 remote or online.
- 133 military dependents on campus using GI Bill benefits, plus 40 remote or online.
"I also am aware of approximately 15 veterans who are faculty or staff," said Kleinhardt, who served in both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy.
CMU's relationship with the military and veterans stretches back decades. Kleinhardt said the university first offered offsite classes for service members in 1972 at the Upper Peninsula's since-closed Kincheloe Air Force Base, "and we've been doing it ever since.
"That amount of experience is invaluable."
Because of that experience, CMU knows its way around the system, Kleinhardt said.
Whether a person is on active duty or the GI Bill, "we are able to advise the military-affiliated student how to best use available resources."
The VRC helps with access to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs educational benefits; building academic and social support networks; and transitioning to campus, satellite or online learning.
"All of our staff are veterans themselves and have navigated the educational process after leaving the military," Kleinhardt said.
CMU also is among the first 12 of 40 Peer Advisors for Veteran Education schools nationwide. PAVE connects incoming student veterans on campus with trained peer advisor veterans who can help them navigate college life, refer them to appropriate resources on and off campus, and provide ongoing support. The CMU chapter of Student Veterans of America also provides veterans with resources, support and advocacy.
Services make a difference
Support like that has been vital to Knipp, a fourth-year undergraduate in CMU's new environmental science program on campus.
"I never saw myself going to college, but the GI Bill covers absolutely every expense and pays me a basic allowance for housing each month while enrolled," he said. "I'm thankful for veteran-friendly schools like CMU."
Knipp grew up in metro Detroit, except for two years in Paris, France, and one year in Dusseldorf, Germany. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 18 and served four years of active duty, two of them in Japan and South Korea.
"I am currently in my fourth and last year of obligatory 'inactive' service," he said. "Basically, if World War III breaks out I will get called back, but other than that I'm your average civilian. I started college in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 2014 and transferred to CMU one year later. I found that my sheer discipline has been the No. 1 reason for my success thus far as a student.
"I hope," he added, "it also allows me to complete graduate school."
“I found that my sheer discipline has been the No.
1 reason for my success thus far as a student.” — Sean
Betz, meanwhile, is on active duty in Germany with U.S. Army Europe. He's the Michigan Army National Guard liaison officer and a project officer for the European Reassurance Initiative, which partners National Guard soldiers with NATO allies.
"Being able to continue moving forward with my MBA while being overseas for the U.S. Army is incredible," he said. "It allows me to continue toward my goal and not have to put my progress on hold while away from Mount Pleasant."
Adam Betz with his wife, Tisa, and dog, Griz.
Path leads to leadership
For Cline, the road toward self-assurance and leadership started in basic training, a month after her 2010 high school graduation.
"I was active-duty Army for four years before being discharged for a hip injury," she said. "My job in the Army was as an environmental health specialist stationed in Hawaii."
Now, as a CMU student, the lessons of military life keep surfacing.
"Once you can lead yourself," she said, "you're better capable of leading other people."
Cline recalled naturally stepping up to direct a class assignment after an instructor didn't spell out who should be in charge.
"Even if I don't intend to take a leadership role, it tends to happen," she said.
CMU, she said, is just right for military veterans getting used to civilian life: large enough to encourage the self-reliance they're used to and small enough to provide support in the wake of a structured military lifestyle.
"I can still be independent," Cline said, "but not so much so that it's intimidating to me."
Veteran students teach, too
All that support CMU offers students with military connections is part of a two-way street: Veterans give as well as they get, Kleinhardt said.
"Our veteran students are an incredible resource on campus" for their life experience, perspective, independence and culture of support for their "battle buddies" — fellow students, in this case.
"That's an excellent lesson for everyone to learn: We're not in this for ourselves," Kleinhardt said. "Take care of your brother. Take care of your sister."
For his part, Kleinhardt is working on a new initiative for veterans on campus. It's in the earliest stages, but he envisions pulling together various support services in an environment like a residential college to serve many needs at once.
In the military, he notes, "you're always responsible to the person junior to you." You set the example, you lead the way.
"Coming to CMU," he said, "student veterans are just going to build on that more."
Duane Kleinhardt, director of CMU’s Veterans’ Resource
Center, attends a Veterans Day event at Mount Pleasant’s Pullen Elementary