Military Veterans Embrace New Challenges at Rocky Mountain College

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By: Michaela Shifley –

photos courtesy of Nathan Wheeler & Larry Whittaker

photos courtesy of Nathan Wheeler & Larry Whittaker

photos courtesy of Nathan Wheeler & Larry Whittaker

photos courtesy of Nathan Wheeler & Larry Whittaker

When United States military servicemen and women return home from the front lines, they often face new challenges, one of which is going back to school to pursue a college degree. Today, veteran undergraduates make up roughly 4 percent of the national student body. Here at Rocky Mountain College, there are also a handful of servicemen and women on campus who have decided to obtain a higher education.

One of these students is Larry Whittaker, who left his hometown of Chicago to serve as a Noncommissioned Officer for 20 years in the United States Navy. Whittaker comes from a long line of veterans, and when the Navy offered him the opportunity to serve his country and travel the world, “I accepted it with enthusiasm,” he said. Now, Whittaker, a junior Business Management major, faces a new battle to get his degree. “I am not a recent high school graduate with a general slate of academic knowledge freshly in mind,” he stated. “I generally put in more hours throughout the day to study and [prepare] for tests. Education is my full-time job both on and off campus.”

Billings native Shane Keehn, another Navy veteran who chose to attend Rocky for his degree in Geology, feels similarly. He said that one of the challenges he has faced as a returning veteran is trying to “[get] back into the swing of things after being out of any type of schooling for 22 years. It has taken awhile to get the cobwebs brushed off the ‘ole brain.”

Whittaker and Keehn may not be alone in their feelings. According to a recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “roughly 85 percent of veterans and active duty service members enrolled in undergraduate programs are 24 years of age or older. Nearly half of veteran students have families, either a spouse (47 percent) and/or children (47 percent.)”

Keehn also feels a deep connection to his military roots. “I knew that I wanted to serve from a very young age, to honor and serve for my family. My family has had about 20 veterans serve since the Civil War, so I felt that I needed to continue that tradition,” he said. After serving in the Gulf Era from 1991-1996 and moving up the ranks to become a Utilitiesman 3rd class, attached to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Five, Keehn decided to explore his interest in geology and enroll at Rocky. Now a junior, he says that his biggest reward from college will be graduating with his degree.

Whittaker also says that his college experience has been wonderful. “The faculty and staff are incredibly knowledgeable, considerate, and engaging…[and] the time, patience, and effort put forth by the professors to ensure their students are prepared to meet the next objective thoroughly impresses me as a student and military veteran.”

Both men stated that a huge advantage to serving in the military was not only the travel experience, but also the fact that they will now get a substantial amount of federal help with their tuition. Rocky participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program for Veterans, which pays 50 percent of any tuition that remains after the Post-9/11 GI Bill has contributed its share of $20,235.02. In the United States between 2000 and 2012, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs distributed educational benefits to more than 900,000 veterans and military service people.

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