ORONO — Prompt services, extensive availability, and a sympathetic and compassionate community are the hallmarks of veteran support at the University of Maine. This semester, UMaine has gained national recognition for its offerings to those who served, and its student veteran community has grown larger than ever before.
The Military Times, a national news source that reports on matters involving the U.S. military community and global defense, ranked UMaine among its Best for Vets Colleges. Factors that determine placement on the list include degree completion, retention, student persistence, grade-point-average, graduation rates, military-specific resources and financial assistance, according to the publication. The list is “the largest and most comprehensive annual ranking of schools for military service members and veterans,” the Military Times reports.
The accolade comes as 310 veterans across all academic levels have enrolled at UMaine this semester, the largest number in history and a 9% increase from 284 in fall 2022. UMaine also has certified the most veterans and dependents for GI Bill benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in any semester at 354.
Additionally, UMaine earned a Military Friendly School designation earlier this year.
“It feels validating that we’re doing things the right way,” says Tony Llerena, associate director of the UMaine Veterans Education and Transition Services Center, of the accomplishments and growing veteran community. “We follow the best practices that programs across the country are doing. We pride ourselves on meeting the needs of our veterans as fast as we can and as best as we can.”
The VETS Center, located in the Memorial Union, is the key provider of support services for past and active members of the armed forces, National Guard and reserves as they apply to, attend and advance beyond UMaine. Support is available for in-state and out-of-state student veterans in person, over the phone and through email.
Llerena and his team, which includes 10 work-study students, not only certify GI Bill and other benefits, but also help veterans navigate the admissions process, provide academic assistance, prepare them to reenter the workforce, answer other questions they may have and direct them to various resources.
Additionally, the office hosts a student veteran’s association and provides Green Zone training, through which its team educates UMaine community members about the issues student veterans face and how to best connect them with the appropriate support.
But beyond the official services exists an offering that several student veterans say is vital to them: community. Seth Allen, a former Airman in the Air Force and sophomore studying civil engineering, says he struggled to relate with peers and feel part of the UMaine community until he started coming to the VETS Center. He then was able to meet and befriend open-minded people with shared experiences and feel accepted and at home at UMaine.
“I felt like I had a connection to campus at that point,” says Allen of Windsor. “This is now my college; my place.”
The VETS center serves as a gathering place for veterans to unwind or hang out with one another. In the back corner of its communal room is a large couch, a TV, a guitar for jam sessions, board games, and a Super Nintendo. Photos of different past and present UMaine veterans and comedic military-themed prints and posters line the walls. The office even offers woobies — military-issued, poncho liners typically given to service members so they can endure the elements, but which UMaine veterans use as blankets when they lay down on the couch or nap.
“It’s the tiny little details that make people feel comfortable,” says Jacob Holmes, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and geophysics student from Freedom. “We put a lot into maintaining that culture and norm of being accepting of one another. This is a safe space for people, and they can share whatever’s on their mind with no judgment.”
Coming to the VETS office and interacting with fellow veterans is therapeutic for Josh Engelhardt, a former U.S. Army specialist and a master’s student in data science and engineering. It was the first place he went at UMaine, and the friends he made there have been crucial in helping him adapt to civilian and campus life.
“The people I’ve met here are just the best,” says Engelhardt, of Pittsfield.
UMaine celebrated Veterans Week this week with several events organized by the VETS Center. Also happening is Military Appreciation Night for Men’s Ice Hockey on Nov. 10. UMaine Athletics is offering active-duty military members and veterans a 50 percent discount on tickets to see Black Bears face off against Boston College at 7 p.m. in the Harold Alfond Sports Arena.
GI Bill is a registered trademark of the VA. More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at benefits.va.gov/gibill.