The Council of Military Educators of Washington state held their seventh annual conference inside Stone Education Center’s auditorium on Joint Base Lewis-McChord Monday.
Representatives from a variety of schools, military education programs and counselors met to discuss what’s working and what needs and improvements are needed to provide service members and veterans with educational opportunities.
“Thousands of service members transition from active duty and stay here in Washington state,” said Roel van der Lugt, director of military affairs and senior policy adviser for Congressman Denny Heck in Washington’s 10th District. “Their contributions to our society cannot be understated. They make us better, stronger, more innovative and you all have a lot to do with that.”
One part of the conference was a student panel with a mixture of current and retired service members. It was a chance for the school and program representatives to hear about the military student experience.
Alanna Rathkopf, a retired Army sergeant first class and current student at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, suggested that counselors and educators can do better getting on the same level as the incoming military students. As someone who walked onto the PLU campus last spring, she was overwhelmed with all of the different programs where guidance was a key — thanks to the school’s military outreach and their counselors.
“Understand that this is new territory for (these students),” Rathkopf said. “No matter how experienced you were, this is completely brand new. This is like walking into high school for the first time.”
A majority of the students in the panel discussed the importance of being realistic with their time as they worked toward a degree. For Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Sotoamaya, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, it took him seven years, enduring two deployments to Afghanistan, to complete his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma.
“There are some units will go to Yakima Training Center for 30 days; they’ll be back for three weeks before going to California or Louisiana for another 30 days — try (fitting) a class in at that time,” Sotoamaya said
Moments later, another panel discussion, featuring a variety of military education counselors, spoke about challenges service members and veterans sometimes face. One challenge is how some service members may not know about all of the benefits they are eligible for during their service.
Captain Eric Flowers, an education service officer for the Washington Army National Guard at Camp Murray, said he’s noticed some service members take out student loans on their own.
“We have (financial aid), we have the G.I. Bill and there are other scholarship opportunities,” Flowers said. “We don’t want to saddle them with student debt when there are so many options for them out there.”
Both the counselors on the panel and some of the school representatives had equal concerns about the word getting out and how to help get members of the military community connected with the various programs available.
The timetable of completing a degree was also brought to the discussion. Educational specialist Sandra Azevedo, of the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion in Seattle, noted that service members can be frustrated with how an associate’s degree might take more than the normal two years, or a bachelor’s degree takes more than four years.
“Not everybody’s path is going to be the same,” Azevedo said. “They can start planning early on and begin working with the institutions.”
Conversations continued through the day in an effort to get the ball rolling on improvements on JBLM and other military installations in Washington.
“We look forward to establishing and maintaining effective relationships with you, as well as the state-level directorates, boards and other agencies in our joint effort to enhance the volunteer education opportunities for our military community,” said Susan Sine, an education service officer at JBLM.