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Working With Vets: Former NCO Now takes Care of Troops on Campus

By Cecilia Hadley

According to Debbie Gregory, CEO of, “John Michelson is one of the top advocates in the nation for student veterans”

Army Sgt. 1st Class John Mikelson's first plan for a post-military career was a bust. After more than 20 years in the Active Guard and Reserve — treating soldiers as a medic, recruiting and training troops, coordinating supplies, keeping his armory running and ready — he was sure he could get work dispatching trucks for one of the trucking companies near his home in Iowa City, Iowa.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he was wrong.

Without a bachelor's degree on his résumé, his years of experience didn't mean much to employers, so he enrolled in the University of Iowa in 2005. He's been there ever since, first as an undergraduate student, then a graduate student, and now as a full-time veteran adviser. And he loves it.

“When I was a recruiter, I promised a lot of kids that the military was the way to pay for college,” he said. “Now I'm following through on those promises and ensuring that these kids that joined the Army to go to college can. And that the colleges are prepared for them.”

A second try

This isn't Mikelson's first foray into academia.

More than 30 years ago, he dropped out of the University of Iowa after three semesters of entirely too much fun.

“My blood-alcohol [level] exceeded my grade-point [average],” he said. “It was probably in everyone's best interest [for me to leave] at that point. I needed to grow up.”

When Mikelson returned in 2005 to study history, he picked up where he left off, including his grades: “My first semester back, there was a note on the transcript that said both dean's list and continued academic probation. They were a little unforgiving,” he laughed.

His second stab at a bachelor's went much better, but the past came back to haunt him when he applied to a graduate program in higher education policy and leadership studies.

Dragged down by those long-ago semesters, his overall grade-point average was too low to land him a spot initially.

That's when the registrar made a call to the dean of the graduate program and “asked her to just look at this century's grades,” he said. She did. He got in.

From volunteer to staff

The noncommissioned officer instinct is strong: Even as he worked on his bachelor's degree, Mikelson found himself helping other student veterans — tracking down information, making connections, “making sure everybody was taken care of,” he said In 2005, he helped found the university's student veterans association. In 2006, when the university Veterans Center opened, the registrar tapped him to run it as a Veterans Affairs-sponsored work-study student. He was a natural fit: experienced at working with vets, and familiar with all the community services after his years as a readiness NCO.

Two years later, the university's veteran task force asked the provost to fund the office permanently, and Mikelson became a full-fledged staff member.

“The registrar saw the need to have a position similar to what the VA had on campuses back in the [19]70s. He saw me as somebody that was already trying to do that work,” he said.

Connecting the dots

These days, Mikelson spends his time getting student veterans what they need, whether it's medical care, scholarships or academic advising.

If veterans don't know about, or can't access, the benefits and services available to them, those benefits are more theoretical than real. In a vast and complicated system, Mikelson is the guy “who connects all the services to each other and to the individual student,” he said. “If I don't have the answer, I probably have the phone number of someone who does.”

When [service members are] coming off active duty, they get told so much stuff ... in such a short amount of time,” Mikelson said. “They're really thinking, the sooner we get done, the sooner I get out of here. They don't realize all the things that are available until it's much later. They really need this information.

“Sometimes they're two and three semesters into a program before they find out their books could have been paid for, or that there's scholarship information, or the aches and pains they're having from wearing all the heavy equipment really can be treated at the local VA for free.”

Mikelson also works with the school and other institutions to identify veteran-friendly policies and put them into action.

Experience is key

Colleges are catching on that veterans need representation, and more of them are hiring staff to fill that need. Want to be one of them? The only way to find work with student veterans is to get involved with student veterans, Mikelson said.

“[Those interested] should get involved with their campus student group. If their campus doesn't have one, start one,” he said.

Get involved

Want to work with student veterans? Start by getting involved in some of these organizations, Mikelson recommends.

Connect with national organizations such as the Student Veterans of America and nontraditional student groups. Get to know professors and administrators who are interested in working with veterans.

Job descriptions and requirements vary from school to school, Mikelson said, and the specific degree you hold matters less than your identity as a veteran and your track record of community involvement.

“I wouldn't say that counseling rehab, or higher ed, or student affairs is necessarily the degree to get,” he said. “I think this is a new enough field that they really can make their way in whatever field they want.”
What is consistent, Mikelson said, is the flow of veterans onto college campuses and the need for experts to work with them.

“I think that the U.S. will continue to have interests around the world, and will be creating new veterans with every class year. As long as the GI Bill stays strong, people are going to continue to go to college.”
The biggest challenge of the job, he said, is “that there are only so many hours in the day.”

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