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Engineering the next mission: Department veteran and military students balance service and studies

Service to country and engineering have a lot in common for many veteran and military students in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. For these Buckeyes, betterment of society is at the heart of each.

Department veteran and military studentsDepartment-affiliated veterans and military students include (left to right) Abiel Kiflu, Brandi Wooten, Haelie Egbert, Thuy Nguyen, Nick Lillios, Andy Rygalski, Tim Gregory and Tommy Balaj“Although engineering and military service each have a different focus, they have the same goal: safety of the public,” said Abiel Kiflu, undergraduate mechanical engineering student and member of the Army Reserve.

“Being an engineer greatly influenced my military career,” he commented. “The military teaches me discipline and to prioritize the safety and well-being of the public. An ethical engineer will have the same mindset as well.”

Kiflu is among a group of department students who have either served or are actively serving in the military.

These students’ unique perspectives can enhance their educational experience and bring new ideas to the classroom.

Marine Corps Reserve member David Krejci chose to major in aerospace engineering due to his military experience. “As an infantryman, aircraft provide an incredible support system for the Marines on the ground. It interested me to help develop the next generation of support aircraft.”

The department also holds the distinction of having the university’s first Tillman Military Scholar, Greg Freisinger, who received the prestigious scholarship while completing his doctoral studies in mechanical engineering. The competitive award provided funding for his research into intra-operative knee laxity, in support of his career goal of enhancing the lives of military amputees.

Balance and transition

Balancing academics and military service, or transitioning from duty to campus life, has its challenges too.

Serving this need is The Ohio State University Office of Military and Veterans Services. Staff there provide a range of specialized support for military-affiliated faculty, staff and students. Not only does the office help students navigate university systems, but it also houses the volunteer Community Advocate Program.

Mechanical engineering student Haelie Egbert is among over two dozen volunteer advocates who support veterans and military students across campus. “As an advocate, I help connect veterans and military students to resources and experiences to boost their academic and professional success,” she said.

Egbert, an Ohio Air National Guard member, supports students throughout the College of Engineering, where her role allows her to serve as a liaison. “My position allows me to help the college understand the challenges facing military students and veterans,” said Egbert.

According to the Office of Military and Veterans Services, a common challenge for students is working through the seemingly competing philosophies of military service and pursuit of higher education. Military duty focuses on service to others, while college success often depends on prioritizing self, they described.

Rather than battling against this and other challenges, advocates like Egbert aim to reframe them into opportunities. “The two perspectives don’t have to be opposed,” she noted. “For example, military students and veterans are often experts in teamwork and working toward common goals. Seeing higher education as a way to collectively succeed can fill students with a sense of community and accountability.”

And, as Krejci commented, the two outlooks can actually benefit each other. “The military instills in leaders that they should know themselves and seek self-improvement. This mindset is transferable to college, where I believe it helps me succeed.”

Navy veteran and mechanical engineering student Joe Verdone has a similar logic. He sees university studies as a way “to accomplish the larger goal of graduating to then again focus on duty.”

No matter the challenges they face while on their higher education mission, a common theme among these students is the importance of community. 

“The best support I have found has been other cadets and midshipmen in engineering,” said Tommy Balaj, Air Force ROTC member. “We all have similar lives and face similar challenges throughout college and doing it as a team is much better than doing it alone.”

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Did you know? The Ohio State University has officially been ranked as the 8th best college in the country for military and veteran students by College Consensus in 2018.

by Holly Henley, communications coordinator, henley.53@osu.edu