By Phillip Jordan
Lt. Robert Naranjo ’14 deployed to Afghanistan in the fall of 2012. As a logistician in the U.S. Marine Corps, he visited bases throughout the country to gather and return battlefield gear to the United States. It was a daunting task, given that the U.S. military aimed to bring home more than 20,000 shipping containers of equipment used during the course of a 12-year war.
Yet that wasn’t the only assignment Naranjo fulfilled during his tour of duty. He also finished two business leadership courses, wrote papers and collaborated with his new MBA cohort back at Mount St. Mary’s College. It was all part of a new experiment at the Mount to help active-duty students stay current in their studies, so that they can transition more easily back to the classroom when their deployment ends.
“The Mount helped me to meet my academic requirements while deployed,” Naranjo says. “That was important to me because I didn’t want to fall behind while I was gone.” More than 2.6 million service members are veterans of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of them are now considering college to help them pursue a new career as civilians. Naranjo’s experience is just one example of a broader effort at Mount St. Mary’s to increase the College’s commitment to a growing number of veterans, active-duty and other military-related students.
Faculty members are learning best practices in how to reintegrate students into the classroom. Expanded funding and community resources are being offered to student-veterans. And the Mount has appointed Madeleine Bruning, an associate professor of nursing and member of the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative, to serve as the College’s dedicated veteran student liaison.
“I feel so deeply indebted to our veterans,” Bruning says. “They served their country. They served me. This is about how we can serve them.”
“Veterans have given so much to our country,” says Jane Lingua, vice president for student affairs. “It’s our turn to support them as they pursue their education and career goals. We as a community are enriched by the presence of these veterans and by having their voices on our campus and in our classes.”
And those voices continue to help the College transform how it serves those who have served all.
When Robert Naranjo ’14 MBA left for Afghanistan, he was in the midst of his fall semester. Thanks to a cross-departmental effort back at the Mount, Naranjo’s barracks at Camp Leatherneck, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, doubled as a virtual classroom — and he completed the semester via independent study. Shortly before returning home the following year, Naranjo began working with his new MBA cohort electronically, and stayed up to date by watching his first few classes online.
“I wrote my papers and watched those videos in our camp offices,” Naranjo says. “Sometimes it was pretty late at night, but I just figured out a process that fit within my duties there. If education’s important to you, you make the time for it.”
Back on campus, Naranjo is on pace to graduate this May with his MBA. He has been commuting to the College from San Diego, where he is stationed as an active-duty officer at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. He hopes to eventually move to northern Virginia, where his son, who will turn 2 this summer, lives with his mother.
Before he leaves the Mount, Naranjo is helping by sharing what he learned during his time as a student in the field. “My hats off to everyone here, especially to Dr. Bruning,” he says. “It was a learning experience for everyone. I was the guinea pig. I’m sharing my feedback so that in the future this can be done even more seamlessly for those who come after me.”
Airman Megan Rodriguez ’14 spent most of her service with the 5th Security Forces Squadron in a spot far removed from her L.A. home: guarding nuclear weapons at an Air Force base in Minot, N.D.
“It was top-secret clearance and I usually got up around 3:30 in the morning for a 12-hour shift,” Rodriguez says. “In the winter, it was 20 degrees below zero and we’d do our drills in the snow.”
In 2012, Rodriguez volunteered to opt out of the Air Force at a time when the service branch was trimming its ranks. She then enrolled in the Mount’s traditional baccalaureate program, majoring in political science with an eye toward a career in international relations, law or diplomacy.
Rodriguez immersed herself in the College’s Women’s Leadership program, attended the Mount’s Ready to Run campaign training for women, and completed a peer mentor program through the National Society of Leadership and Success. Still, she felt something was absent from her college experience.
“I missed the camaraderie that exists among fellow veterans,” she says. So, in the fall of 2012, she formed the Veterans Outreach Association (VOA), and began publicizing the group to students, faculty and staff. She, too, cites the unflagging support of the College’s student veteran liaison: “Dr. Bruning is the first person I connected with here. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here and the VOA wouldn’t exist. She’s been more than a mentor. She’s family now.”
Through the VOA, Rodriguez has brought guest speakers to campus, organized Masses of Remembrance and hosted meet-and-greet events to bring student veterans together. This spring, VOA members delivered Valentine’s cards to fellow veterans at the Fisher House Foundation and participated in a fundraising hike at Mount Baldy through The Heroes Project.
Rodriguez is also reaching out specifically to women veterans, who are statistically less likely to disclose their Armed Forces service.
“Women face a very specific set of issues when they transition back to civilian life,” she says. “Especially at a women’s college, it’s important that we support our women veterans and create a space for them on campus where they feel comfortable.”
Eric Mejia ’15 spent seven years in the Marines. As an infantryman, he was stationed in Utah, Hawaii and at California’s Camp Pendleton and spent three years as a recruiter in Huntington Park, Calif.
After his service ended, Mejia figured he’d work a while and then go back to school. “Before I knew it, one year turned into another, and another, and soon, a decade had gone by,” he says.
But he never gave up the dream of completing his degree. Last year, an alum recommended Mount St. Mary’s to Mejia. When he checked out the Mount’s Weekend College, he appreciated the schedule structured for working adults and the smaller class sizes. “And there’s just a welcoming culture here that really distinguishes the Mount,” he says. “That’s what won me over.”
Today, Mejia is a religious studies major, with a minor in business. This winter, he started a new job in the Mount’s business office.
He is also volunteering with groups that assist homeless veterans. Someday, Mejia would like to start a faith-based organization that prevents recently discharged veterans from becoming homeless.
“There’s a detachment that can hit you when you get out of the service,” he says. “You’re so used to military life, the chain of command. And then when you’re out, all of a sudden that structure doesn’t exist anymore. It can be difficult to adapt.”
Over the past two semesters, he has delivered several class presentations that focus on this passion.
“I put off school for so long and it always haunted me,” Mejia says. “But there are many other stories out there like mine. I want to be an example for others, to let them know that this is still possible.”
“The important thing is simply to connect with our veterans and family members of active-service members. If they connect with others, they're more likely to succeed, and to see that their skills are transferrable to school and a new career.”
It’s stories like these that inspire Mount St. Mary’s to keep improving how the College supports its student-veterans.
Thanks to a partnership with the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at USC’s School of Social Work, the Mount recently hosted a collaborative workshop aimed at creating healthcare strategies for veterans and military families. And in 2013, Mount St. Mary’s won a $50,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation to create the Ahmanson Veteran Scholarship Initiative.
“So much of this progress is due to the leadership of Madeleine Bruning, our student veteran liaison,” says Diane Vines, dean of nursing. “She has dedicated her efforts to supporting and assisting our veteran students with compassion, thoughtfulness and intelligence. She has taught all of us to care and to go the extra mile for these students.”
Together, Bruning and Vines regularly lead a workshop on reintegrating veterans into higher education. The workshop assists faculty, staff and College administration in understanding the uniqueness of military culture, and in learning best practices for enriching veterans’ experiences in the classroom and on campus.
“The most important thing is simply to connect with our veterans and family members of active-service members,” Bruning says. “If they connect with others, they’re more likely to succeed, and to see that their skills are transferrable to school and a new career.”
To learn more about veterans’ services at Mount St. Mary’s College, visit http://www.msmc.la.edu/veterans. Veterans, active-duty and other military-related students, alums, faculty and staff are invited to join the Mount’s Veterans Outreach Association. Visit www.facebook.com/msmc.voa or e-mail email@example.com