Sunday, June 23, 2024

Military–friendly colleges and universities help pave the way for veterans


With a little help from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Alex Blain is ready for his next chapter.

After serving 23 years in the U.S. Army, Blain is transitioning into civilian life and the MBA he is earning will help pave the way to a post-military career in business consulting.

He is most interested in aerospace and defense, consumer goods and technology.

“I like problem solving and collaborating with teams, and the opportunity to get into those sectors is very motivating,” he says.

Blain is just one of thousands of veterans starting a new chapter at one of the state’s numerous colleges with programs tailored to people with a military background. Schools know veterans come with skills and a work ethic that make them strong students and they can help fill the ever growing workforce demands from North Carolina’s new and expanding population of employers.

Blain already has plenty of professional experience in his current role in the inspector general’s office at the Pentagon and in Kenan-Flagler’s STAR program (Student Teams Achieving Results), which matches business students with corporate partners to help them solve problems and challenges.

“The STAR program is giving me some exposure to the business world before actually going out to work with the civilian sector,” he says.

Blain chose Kenan-Flagler for its standing as a top MBA program and the real-world experience he’s also receiving. Kenan-Flagler’s ranking by as one of the nation’s top military friendly MBA programs provides an extra incentive. ranks colleges and universities, employers, and other entities as an incentive for them to invest in programs that improve the lives of veterans and help them pursue higher education. Rankings are based on responses to a survey of important factors in supporting military talent.

More than 1,800 schools participated in the 2023-2024 survey, with 530 of them earning awards designations, and 250 designated as “gold,” including Kenan-Flagler and other North Carolina universities and community colleges.

Colleges and universities in North Carolina are well-positioned to serve military personnel and veterans because of the number of military bases and the robust business and industry growing in the state, primarily in the STEM sectors.

A native of Boston, Blain joined the military in 2000 to see the world, and a year after enlisting, he found himself fighting in post 9/11 wars.

“I’ve deployed five times – three times to Iraq and two to Afghanistan,” he says. He is now ranked as a chief warrant officer 4 and is using funds from the post 9/11 GI Bill program to complete his education through Kenan-Flagler’s online program.

As a public institution, the online MBA currently enrolls 300 military students. It’s a significant number, representing about a third of the school’s overall enrollment, says Karsen Spain, MBA veterans affairs specialist.

One of the hallmarks of Kenan-Flagler’s program is flexibility.

“Kenan-Flagler is a top-ranked military-friendly school for a lot of reasons,” Spain says. “But especially for our online program, which allows the military community to access the classes from anywhere, which is attractive to students.”

N.C. State University, another gold military-friendly school, enrolls about 850 students identified as active-duty service members and veterans, and 1,400 military dependents, split about 50-50 between undergraduate and graduate school, says Nick Drake, director of military and veteran services at the Jeffrey Wright Military and Veterans Service Center.

Like most colleges and universities with military-affiliated student populations, N.C. State offers the Green Zone program, designed to help students recognize staff and faculty who have been trained to be resources and allies for student veterans and active-duty service members.

“We want veterans to come to N.C. State, and because that transition period can be difficult for service members coming in, we provide support programs for them,” Drake says.

An engineering degree from N.C. State can open doors to a great career, and it became more accessible to veterans last year when alumnus Jerry Collier and his wife
Pat endowed the College of Engineering with what has been called “a transformational” planned gift of $25 million.

The gift, designed to grow undergraduate engineering scholarships for military-connected students represents the largest commitment to support the military community in university history.

“This endowment is destined to fully fund roughly 100 scholarships for students each year, which translates into 100 lives that will be changed,” Drake says. “It will be a great tool to increase enrollment numbers for veterans in that college specifically.”  Central Carolina Community College in Sanford is also rolling out the red carpet for military-affiliated students, including those seeking jobs in technology and life sciences in
North Carolina.

As a top-rated military-friendly community college, CCCC offers many educational opportunities and assistance for veterans pursuing careers after their service, says Jennifer Dillon, director of the Veterans Upward Bound and Military Affiliated Initiatives.

While some veterans and active-duty personnel seek avenues to higher education, many come out of the service needing immediate employment, and CCCC is focused on preparing them for quickly growing myriad of career opportunities.

“I feel like we’re having a shift in educational needs here in North Carolina with so many industries coming to our area,” Dillon says. “Central Carolina is rising to the occasion, providing many short-term trainings and certifications that lead directly to viable employment.”

One way CCCC supports employment for veterans is through Veterans Upward Bound, a career exploration and counseling program to help them take the skillsets they developed in the military and apply them in the civilian world.

Last November, the State Board of Community Colleges allocated $16.5 million for 10 community colleges to support the bioscience industry sector as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant. CCCC will receive nearly $1.4 million to support biotechnology training, and including veterans is a key component.

“These are high-paying, great jobs in our area that we’d love for our veterans to have access to,” Dillon says.

From cybersecurity to Shakespeare, Fayetteville Technical Community College considers its continuing education program as an “on-ramp” into industry and higher education, says Scot McCosh, senior director of military and veterans programs. 

FTCC is poised in Fort Liberty’s backyard to offer both certificate and degree programs to the community’s active military personnel and veterans.

Among the many professions FTCC supports, cybersecurity is a growing need in North Carolina, McCosh says. FTCC is partnering with the Carolina Cyber Network, composed of 14 community colleges and four universities, to close the cybersecurity workforce gap across North Carolina. “We have military students interested in cybersecurity and we’re getting them the training they need,” he says. “And as they begin to transition out of the military, they can earn credentials in this specialty and others that will help them find jobs in the civilian world” In addition to preparing military students for careers, colleges also provide services and programs to hone their soft skills and nurture their souls.








The Trauma Research Foundation reports that programs like DE-CRUIT uses theater — and specifically Shakespeare — to address traumatic stress and associated problems encountered by veterans as they navigate from the military. So McCosh is at work on a grant to recruit a Shakespeare expert to FTCC.

“Our goal is to access tools and programs, including the fine arts, to connect with veterans and provide mental health assistance and healing,” he says.

At CCCC, a variety of programs and services are in place to smooth the social aspects of transitioning into civilian life.

Named for the school’s mascot, the Cougar Club provides the camaraderie veterans may miss after leaving the military, Dillon says.

The Military Affiliated Resource Center is another place students can go to connect with each other, and the school’s Veterans Upward Bound program offers workshops on topics ranging from financial literacy, time management and the arts.

Career counseling also plays a role in veteran education at community colleges and four-year universities. 

Sandra Chandler, senior associate director of employer engagement and recruiting at Kenan-Flagler, focuses on responding to the needs of the business community. One way is through the MBA Veterans Career Conference, an independent event where student veterans or military affiliated students can come together and interact with employers in a conference-style format.

There are often as many as 100 employers in attendance, alongside about 1,000 students. Kenan-Flagler usually has the largest cohort of
student veterans in attendance because of the volume of vets enrolled in its MBA program.

UNC has recently created the Carolina Veterans Resource Center and a newly formed Carolina Veterans Alumni Network.

The Resource Center, like the one at CCCC, provides a welcoming environment to study, relax, and meet other military-connected students. And the Veterans Alumni Network connects students and alumni through mentorship, educational support and advocacy.

“We have some fabulous alumni who are always willing to support students and help them pave a pathway to career success,” Chandler says. “It’s a great community,”

And it’s a community Blain enjoys being a part of.

“My experience at Kenan-Flagler has been phenomenal,” he says. “And I’m happy to be part of the Tar Heel network.”

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh.

For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

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