Ken O’Connell’s personal style, on and off campus, supports military community
Camaraderie and community support are core values for military families and their advocates, so the robust turnout of Saint Michael’s College campus leaders in Ken O’Connell’s first-floor Joyce Hall office early in June to greet a Veterans Administration compliance officer left a strong positive impression.
“There was a great showing from many campus offices to support our Military Community Services Department on this VA survey – multiple offices had either directors or VP’s present or made themselves available for questions on that day of the in-person visit. The person doing the survey was happy to see that kind of support on campus — the ‘proper representation,’ as she put it,” said O’Connell, who recently shared highlights of his busy and productive past year on and off campus.
“My office has been re-establishing lots of our in-person connections with military bases after the pandemic,” he said. For example, his visits last year included to Camp LeJeune at the base high school located right on that North Carolina Marine Corps facility, and to Fort Bragg Army base, also in North Carolina – his first-ever visit there in his current role — to attend an education fair open to service members at the fort and their families.
O’Connell said his chief mission at such stops is to raise awareness of the great opportunities that a smaller college like Saint Michael’s presents to military-connected students. “A lot of people think they have to go to larger state schools to make use of their benefits, so I informed them on how military education benefits can be utilized at St. Mike’s because we’re 100 percent Yellow Ribbon” — meaning for eligible beneficiaries of that VA program, all tuition and fees are covered, 100 percent.
“I like to get that information out there,” said O’Connell. According to the VA website, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon Program can help veterans “pay for higher out-of-state, private school, foreign school, or graduate school tuition and fees that the Post-9/11 GI Bill doesn’t cover.”
At Fort Bragg, O’Connell said, he ran into a soldier who is from Vermont. “That’s what’s important about bigger bases — there are more people to draw from and folks who leave bases typically look for schools near where they are from,” he said.
Another highlight for him early this year was accompanying three military-affiliated Saint Michael’s students — Marie Bavely ‘23, Demara Mosher ‘23, and Mickey Bavely ‘26 – in attending the 15th Student Veterans of America (SVA) National Conference in Florida from January 5 to January 7.
O’Connell said a typical semester at Saint Michael’s College sees between 30 to 40 students with military affiliations of different types: active military including National Guard, ROTC Corps students through the UVM program, plus dependents of active military or veterans.
“Coming in this fall we have one student who just got out of the Marine Corps in the middle of July and just got back to Vermont, and also an Army veteran starting this fall,” he said. Additionally, National Guard members, many from nearby Camp Johnson that conveniently abuts campus, can use Buxton Scholarships to pay for some of their education. “One of the things we’re doing is taking care of the children of our veterans,” the director said of his office’s services for dependents of veterans or those in active service.
Among O’Connell’s goals for the coming year include working more with the nearby National Guard recruiting team to promote the College’s National Guard Buxton Scholarships, with six or more Guard members using that resource now. “Some are full-time National Guard, so that’s their main job, and they also are students,” he said.
On-campus opportunities and support for military-affiliated students include an active chapter of the Student Veterans Association (SVA), which puts on several events each year. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group that comes and hangs out in our Joyce Hall Lounge,” O’Connell said. “One guy brought a video game for our big TV so it’s a comfortable place to connect with other students. I think that’s something we like to do at St. Mike’s: find these little niches around campus where people can connect with folks of similar interests, but find out about other groups and then learn more about each other too.”
Saint Michael’s continues to regularly have between five and 10 students active in ROTC through the Corps at the University of Vermont. He said that this past May, four of those ROTC members graduated, and all now are commissioned and in active military. “We also have a new cadet coming in this fall who is a national scholarship awardee,” O’Connell said. For those students, all tuition and fees are covered by their ROTC scholarships, and Saint Michael’s also pays for room and board, “so they pretty much are coming to St. Mike’s on full scholarships.” He said the aforementioned incoming cadet initially had planned to attend another school, “but then she visited us and St. Mike’s was a great fit to help her meet her educational and career goals!”
Other notable activities for O’Connell’s office in the past year include maintaining strong connections with the local VA and its military family community network. “It’s a network of people who support veterans in the entire state with employment, mental health and other things,” he said. The director said he regularly attends those meetings. He also plans to connect more with the College Farm this year as a resource for community veterans since that was a visible and popular success through initiatives of former SVA members in pre-pandemic years.
O’Connell said the Marine who is coming in this Fall has an interest in health sciences and is excited to join Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue. “When he found all the opportunities we have, he said he might just want to try everything,” said O’Connell, “so those personal connections are really important. You need to show you are part of the military community because that helps gain trust among students and prospects.”
In military circles particularly, he said, others need to have trust in leaders “before they will believe what you say or follow your path or accept advising. It’s showing you are committed to being part of that community. You’ve got to show up in faith, and that’s why we get involved, even in the wider community beyond campus.”
For instance, his office still maintains ties with Project Healing Waters, a program based for a time on the main Saint Michael’s campus that gets veterans out fly-fishing together. Now the program is based at Josh’s House. O’Connell is happy for it still to be so close by at Josh’s House, located at Fort Ethan Allen (the old North Campus for Saint Michael’s). Josh’s House was founded by the mother of a veteran named Josh who died after his struggle with PTSD.
Another highlight for O’Connell this year was Army Guard Cpt. Lance Jandreau ’18 returning to speak at reunion to alumni veterans. Jandreau has strong connections with the Guard in Washington, D.C., and with the State Department, so O’Connell wants to possibly make him part of a wider campus group that has been visiting D.C. annually through the Career Center and Center for Global Engagement.
Successes from former Saint Michael’s military students testify to the good work of the office. Chris Boutin ’18 is now a school counselor in Franklin County after earning a master’s at Columbia University in New York City. Taylor Ward, a pre-med major and combat medic who had three deployments while a student in the Guard, graduated this fall. “He stuck to the program and was able to do so thanks to faculty being flexible for his Guard unit deployments,” said O’Connell, noting that Ward started in spring 2016. “He told me that having this office on campus made the difference since he did not live on campus being an older student with two little kids and a wife – but with us here, he still felt like he became part of the St. Mike’s family.”