Fort Hays State University is a regional public institution located on the plains of western Kansas (disclosure: I work there), with an enrollment that generally falls between 14,000-16,000 students. Those students are distributed across three major constituent groups: residential campus, online, and China campuses. Despite the roots of the institutional property coming from the U.S. Army, it enrolls a relatively small number of military-connected students (approximately, 650).
In the fall of 2017, Dr. Seth Kastle, an assistant professor of leadership studies at FHSU and Army veteran, visited Johnson County Community College. He recalled how they had a “very nice lounge and center for their veterans” while FHSU had “no centralized support system for the military connected community.” Kastle immediately began work with Dr. Dennis King, assistant vice president of student affairs who oversees enrollment management, to better serve the institution’s military-connected student population.
King and Kastle pursued funding for a centralized support system for military-connected students, and FHSU approved internal funding for the personnel, space, and activities through its Strategic Enrollment Planning (SEP) process in February 2020.
And Then COVID-19 Happened...
The hiring and stand-up efforts were scheduled to begin in the spring of 2020. However, with COVID-19 came strain on budgets. FHSU remained resolute in its desire to continue with the project, which now included services to both transfer and military students. However, King noted that the greatest challenge was not budgetary but in hiring, a slow process which delayed opening for four months.
Launching Under Crisis
Despite challenges, the Transfer & Military Center officially opened in the summer of 2020 with the mission of providing “prospective transfer and military-connected students with a seamless transition to Fort Hays State University by developing innovative pathways to degree completion.” Achieving this mission, however, came with distinct challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic that had swept the nation.
Erica Fisher, director of the center, noted one challenge that also served as somewhat of a blessing. Without existing ways of doing things, they were easily able to adapt to how things were forced to function under COVID-19 restrictions. She noted that, “Traditionally, military student recruitment is achieved through in-person events and fairs. With COVID, our ability to visit military bases and attend college fairs is extremely limited. This has forced us to become innovative in how we engage and connect with prospective students. We’ve begun looking at targeted digital marketing, social media engagement, virtual fairs, and most importantly, utilizing our new contact management system to create engagement plans for our contacts.” Kelsi
Broadway, assistant director of the center and a Navy veteran focused on serving military-connected students, echoed the positive spin to this challenge, because “while COVID created a lot of hurdles to the traditional way of operating, it also opened a lot of doors to increasing efficiency and innovation by finding new ways to proceed.”
Fisher also shared another challenge: “our inability to visit with students face to face... Most (if not all) communication is being done digitally (email, chat, zoom) or over the phone.” As military-connected students seek higher education, relationships—especially veteran-to-veteran—are vitally important in the transition. Direct interpersonal contact having been eliminated with pandemic restrictions, those relationships had to be initiated, built, and maintained digitally.
Broadway, however, expressed the positive attitude necessary to function well during this time of crisis: “Helping our military students achieve their educational goals doesn’t stop with a pandemic. We keep looking for new ways to innovate when it comes to our military-connected population. Whether it is updating policies and procedures, articulating new military credit for major courses, creating new scholarships for our active-duty graduate students to bridge the gap their tuition assistance doesn’t fill (TAGGS), or increasing our support personnel and services through the creation of the Transfer & Military Center, we are continuously researching, reviewing, and implementing best practices and new initiatives.” While there are real operational problems caused by this crisis, it also affords the opportunity to rethink what you are doing and how you are doing it.
As Broadway noted, “the military-connected student community is resilient.” It is important that those serving that population be doubly so, in order to take care of the students and themselves. However, as embodied in the attitudes of both Fisher and Broadway, we must continue to find ways to transform challenges into positives—even during a prolonged pandemic. Utilize the changes imposed by the pandemic as a catalyst to find new ways to support the military-connected student population, to be more efficient with available resources, and to meet those students wherever they are and however you can.