College of Education serves veterans through Military Initiatives Committee

Dustin Meritt, professor of practice in the College of Education, an Army veteran and chair of the committee. (Deborah Adeniji | Collegian Media Group)

For Veterans Day 2021, Kansas State’s College of Education Military Initiatives Committee recognized local teachers who are military veterans through Operation Veterans Day.

Dustin Meritt, professor of practice in the College of Education, an Army veteran and chair of the committee, said a group visited over 20 self-identified military veteran teachers in the district and gave them a certificate and a special edition EDCATS T-shirt.

“Working in education really is another form of service, in my opinion, to your community,” Meritt said. “You could see that pride. They really appreciated it. Just taking the time out of the day to say, ‘We recognize you. We recognize you for your previous service to your country and now your local service to your community.'”

Meritt said the committee works with Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth and plans to branch out to other bases in the state. In addition, he said the committee provides resources such as scholarships, therapy and installments of the Hot Topics Professional Development Series, which brings speakers to discuss navigating military and civilian life.

Merritt said that the committee aims to help veterans and military-connected individuals — such as spouses and children of veterans — transition from military life into academia.

“I think that’s something we’re trying to do with our military initiatives is just providing that pipeline,” Meritt said, “providing that outlet for folks to just ask, ‘Hey, can you tell me about your transition?’ or ‘Here’s some of the things I’m struggling with, are there any tips or tricks you would have?'”

Because faculty members can choose to be on the committee, Meritt said there is a wide breadth of knowledge on the Military Initiatives Committee.

“We’re fortunate on our committee that we have some representatives from our counseling department,” Meritt said. “I’ve kind of tasked them with, ‘Let us know as committee members, what are some things that we can be doing if somebody comes to us?'”

The ability to assist veterans and military-connected students transitioning to civilian life is an important factor to the committee, Meritt said.

“I think the big thing that we want our students who are veterans or our students who are service-connected … we want them to know, ‘Listen, you don’t have to struggle,'” Meritt said. “‘If there are things that are specific towards this that you need help this, we are here for you. You do not have to be at this alone, whatever it may be.’ I think that’s the big thing is just letting folks know.”

Cesar Rivera, graduate student in college student development, is an Army veteran who works in the career center. He said the Military Initiatives Committee is beneficial for K-State student-veterans.

“[It’s] a place on campus that is recognizing the military presence to show some of those veterans who may have trouble with transitioning from military life to civilian life and being a good college student,” Rivera said. “Basically, a place for you to have a home within a home — a new home with K-State.”

He said the initiative follows familiar organizations for veterans.

“In the military, we have so many different organizations that allow us to portray our strengths,” Rivera said. “So, I feel this initiative here on campus is allowing veterans to highlight their skills and personalities, as well.”

Art DeGroat, Colonel H. Duane Saunders executive director of military and veteran affairs at K-State and an Army veteran, oversees the Military Initiatives Committee. Besides the faculty members involved with the committee, he said many students who are not veterans benefit from working with the committee.

“For many, they were not veterans, and this gives them a personal experience to understand veterans and military-connected people in connection with education,” DeGroat said. “It gives them more added skill to serve that community of their careers, so take them that way.”

DeGroat said civilian teachers working with the military community attracted Jill Biden’s attention. As a result, she took a special interest in K-State’s College of Education. DeGroat said when Biden was the second lady during the Obama administration, she visited the university and Fort Riley.

“Jill Biden heard through the Military Child Education Coalition that Kansas State University was one of the first universities in America that actually had a curriculum for soon-to-be school teachers — and it was mandatory curriculum — and they prepared them to how to deal with military children in their classrooms,” DeGroat said.

He said Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education, hosted Biden on a Fort Riley Middle School tour and showed her the work K-State is doing.

Now that Jill Biden is the first lady, DeGroat said she is continuing to serve military-connected people in education. She even reached out to Mercer once again to discuss better serving students with parents in the military.

“I had the opportunity to be a part of a private conversation where we just really dove into the issues military children are facing today and how we can best support them,” Mercer said. “Just phenomenal dialogue with leaders in organizations that provide support on a national level.”

While the Military Initiatives Committee is setting the example for schools across the country, Rivera said he hopes the College of Education can provide a blueprint for other colleges at K-State to aid veterans.

“We’re working to see if there are other departments on campus that can thrive with having an initiative like this,” Rivera said. “There’s veteran-students in other organizations, as well, that could possibly benefit from having an initiative like this, but we’re willing to be the guinea pigs if you will and try to get some things started off.”

More information is on the College of Education’s Military Initiatives website.