New initiative welcomes military-affiliated graduate students to Carolina and helps them transition to academic life.

Military-affiliated students often face unique challenges in university life and graduate studies. As they expect, the culture of the military is very different from the culture of academia.

This August, the first ever Boot Print to Heel Print orientation was sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Graduate School, Office of the Dean of Students, and Carolina Parents Council to help military-affiliated students transition to the classroom.

Maria Dykema Erb, co-director of The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program, says she considers it a tremendous honor to provide encouragement and support to UNC-Chapel Hill’s military-affiliated students.

John Bailey

John Bailey has been in the Air Force Reserve since 2012. He plans to use his master’s degree in social work to serve as a clinical social worker for the Air Force.

John Bailey, one of the orientation attendees, is pursuing a master’s degree in social work through the School of Social Work’s Winston-Salem Distance Education MSW Program. Bailey has been in the Air Force Reserve since 2012. He plans to use his degree to become a clinical social worker for the Air Force.

Bailey said the Boot Print to Heel Print orientation “was amazing.” Three years removed from his undergraduate degree, he wants to make sure his writing skills are up to par as he pursues his graduate education. At the orientation, Bailey learned about resources that can help him succeed as he earns his master’s degree.

Amber Mathwig, student veterans assistance coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students, says 22 undergraduate, graduate and professional students attended the orientation.

“The intention was to provide them with a more in-depth connection with our resources on campus,” Mathwig says. Some military-affiliated students have been out of a classroom for 15 years or more, so the orientation included information about resources such as the Writing Center. Information about military benefits and funding opportunities was also provided.

Similarly to Bailey, Kathryn Buckland’s academic pursuits in public health are driven by her desire to succeed within challenging leadership positions in the Army. After receiving her master’s degree in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Buckland will complete a year-long internship as an Army health service comptroller. She will then be assigned as the chief financial officer of an Army hospital with an annual operating budget in excess of $50 million.

Kathryn Buckland

Kathryn Buckland is pursuing her master of science in public health degree. She is pictured with her husband, Jonathan Buckland. Both were deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-13.

“During my career in the Army, the MSPH degree will undoubtedly equip me with the analytical skills and policy perspectives necessary to navigate one of the largest health care systems in the world — during a time when, like the civilian sector, military health care costs have increased faster than inflation,” Buckland says.

Buckland’s choice to join the Army was inspired by a family history of military service — her father was an Air Force pilot and her two grandfathers served in World War II — as well as the enlistment of many high school and undergraduate peers after Sept. 11, 2001.

Buckland admits that at first, she did not understand the necessity of a military-affiliated student program. She says she did not view herself or her military experiences as unique or requiring special assistance.

“However, upon Amber’s opening presentation, I quickly learned how much I have changed as a person in six short years since completing my undergraduate degree,” Buckland says. “The orientation was a great opportunity to learn about the many resources and support programs available on campus and connect with fellow military-affiliated students.”

Erb says it can be very isolating when students can’t find others who understand their experience.

“There was an immediate camaraderie among the students because all of them knew that they had a common bond,” Erb says.

Mathwig, who served in the U.S. Navy, was once in the shoes of the students she is helping.

“I tell people that I’m really great at my job because I made so many mistakes, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student,” she says. One of those mistakes was not asking for more information.

Part of the transition to academia involves a switch in mindset, Mathwig adds. In the military, a group mission that someone has given to you drives you. In school, students chose their mission. “You are the only person who can drive that mission to success,” she says.

The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program, the Carolina Veterans Organization and the Office of the Dean of Students will co-sponsor The Color of Courage: A Two-Man Theatrical Experience on November 10 at 6 p.m. in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. Sonny Kelly, one of the performers, is a military veteran and a doctoral student in communication.

To help these students be successful, UNC-Chapel Hill offers a variety of resources for military-affiliated students. For example, military-affiliated graduate students can attend lunches to network with their peers or learn how to translate their military experience into civilian job skills.

“I am excited to see this program grow in coming years to reach more incoming military-affiliated students. We want to make the transition into graduate school as smooth as possible,” Erb says.

“The initiative is a way to give back — both personally and professionally — to those who have given so much of their lives to protect and serve our country.”

—Lauren Haller and Christine Scalora