At The University of Texas at Arlington, where veterans and military-connected students accounted for 11% of UTA’s total enrollment in fall 2021, with veterans alone making up 4.7%, a point of pride is the thriving Office of Military and Veteran Services (MAVS). The impact of the program is evident, as UTA was recognized by Military Times as the nation’s top four-year institution for veterans and their families in 2020 and 2021.
For veterans and military-connected students at UTA, the Military Times ranking cemented what they already knew: This place is special, filled with people who care and programs that go the extra mile.
Within moments of starting a conversation with Mavericks who are involved in military and veteran programs, the passion for service and for each other is clear. Their dedication paints a vivid portrait of a community bonded by shared experiences and a commitment to moving each other toward their goals.
As these people work vigilantly to offer resources, helping hands, and listening ears, it’s clear the “no one left behind” creed of the U.S. military has permeated UTA’s campus.
By Veterans, For Veterans
When James Kumm, a veteran of the U.S. Army, arrived at UTA in 2017 to assume his role leading programming and services for veteran and military-connected students, he was not initially met with the well-oiled machine that exists now.
“We had no idea what UTA’s military and veteran services would look like when I got here,” says Kumm, executive director of MAVS. “There were 17 different programs and offices. It took our students a literal mile-and-half walk to get everything done in order to get their benefits or just get involved.”
Kumm was given nine months to evaluate the programs and offer a plan on where the University should go from there. With this hefty challenge on his plate, Kumm looked to the people who knew the programs the best.
“My third day on the job, there was an orientation for veterans,” Kumm says. “We had a good group of students participating in that program, so I asked them where the veterans on campus congregate.”
The students pointed Kumm to the Veterans Lounge in UTA’s Central Library.
“I was in that library lounge at least once a day for several hours talking to any student I could,” he says. “I asked them what they thought, what they felt, and took notes on their experiences to help determine our next moves.”
Empowered by the firsthand experiences of veterans on campus, Kumm got to work centralizing military and veteran services. What was once 17 programs spread across campus became three primary offices: MAVS/VetSuccess on Campus, Veterans Education Certification Benefits, and Veterans Upward Bound.
His time spent in the library lounge set the template for how the MAVS program would be run going forward: by the people they serve.
“Our program is run by veterans,” Kumm says. “Everybody on our staff, in some capacity or another, has been in the students’ shoes. They understand what obstacles they’re facing and the challenges they have to overcome. Our entire goal is to make sure our students get their degrees. We’re here to help, to listen, and to get them connected with resources for mental health or benefits, for example, so they can stay focused on their education.”
“It’s Just Like a Family”
As far as Albright Wilbert, U.S. Army veteran and Master of Social Work student at UTA, is concerned, the value of the shared understanding throughout MAVS cannot be overstated.
“Transitioning out of the military is difficult when it’s all you’ve known, and people who haven’t spent time in the military don’t understand the struggles you’ve faced,” Wilbert says. “After being in combat, it’s not easy to get your mind in the right place to further your education.
“When you find a group of people who understand where you’ve been, the mentality, it makes it easier to make connections and find that motivation. It’s just like a tight-knit family that actually understands. That’s what I’ve found here.”
Wilbert has a passion for working with veterans and connecting them with the resources that help ensure they are taken care of after they leave the service. As she started the final year of her master’s program in fall 2021, she discovered an opportunity in the MAVS office that would foster this passion while meeting her capstone internship requirement.
In her role, which she continued in spring 2022 as her May graduation date approached, Wilbert served as a resource for students, regularly retracing Kumm’s steps to the Veterans Lounge in the library to interact with fellow students and hear what their needs are.
She spent her time helping to make sure veteran students have what they need to stay on track with their courses and that they are aware of the benefits available to them through the University and beyond. She says it was good practice for her future career in social work, but she remains a peer above all else.
Journey from Service Member to Student
For some students, this kind of peer-driven support can make a world of difference in their educational journey.
Derron Gadison, political science senior, came to UTA after more than 20 years serving in the U.S. Army. After sacrificing time with his family to serve his country, Gadison wanted to get back to Texas. He was admitted to leading universities, UTA among them. His choice became clear when he learned of the veteran services available at the University.
“This was one of the top reasons I came to UTA—I knew they would be most helpful to me and my journey,” Gadison says, adding that the resources available at UTA made the transition from service member to student easier.
In his second semester, when Gadison began to feel overwhelmed, he reached out to Kumm, who first connected Gadison directly to resources on campus that could help.
“James and the MAVS staff will get down in the muck to solve a problem if any of us are in a situation that could bring unnecessary stress,” Gadison says, encapsulating the MAVS goal of connecting students with resources to keep them on their path to graduation. “They’ve been a great advocate for me.”
For Kumm, Gadison’s relationship with MAVS is a two-way street, as Gadison’s passion for the community has always shined through.
“He’s always there when we need him,” Kumm says.
Gadison notes that the value of UTA’s military and veteran community goes far beyond helping him reach graduation in spring 2023. There are intangible benefits, too: “MAVS employees have a knack for pulling me out of my shell and helping me find ways of getting involved.”
Ultimately, he says, it all boils down to support.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Gadison says. “In the military, you have all this camaraderie, and you always know who to go to with a problem. A lot of veterans, when they get out, they miss that. At UTA, there’s someone to talk to and to help guide you through your new life.”
“It’s a Social Necessity”
Helping veterans transition into life outside of the military is a big piece of what drives Dayton Williams.
Her eldest son, Sgt. Tyrell Seth Williams of the U.S. Marine Corps, was tragically killed in a hit-and-run less than 90 days after returning home from his third tour in Iraq. As she grappled with grief and the challenge of coming to grips with her son dying after making it home from the dangers of a warzone, Williams started to ask herself about what matters.
“I would not have chosen the military for him, but I did everything I could to support him, and I believe that’s what we need to do,” Williams says. “Supporting our military… I think it’s a social necessity.”
She took an early retirement from a career that had once been her passion, determined to make her next chapter one of service. What followed was a decade-long journey of discovering how she could fulfill her new mission of serving veterans, a journey that ultimately landed her at UTA pursuing a master’s in social work with an emphasis on mental health and substance abuse.
Williams completed her foundational internship for her master’s program in MAVS.
“When I met James, that’s when my journey in social work began to get really fun,” she says.
Through her internship, Williams got involved in Veterans Edge, a mentorship program for veterans and military-connected students in need of support. She says the sheer undertaking of the Veterans Edge mission is part of what sets UTA apart.
“Every semester, Veterans Edge mentors split up the roster of new veteran and military-connected students coming to UTA and get in contact with every single one,” Williams says. “I had 80 people on my call list. Who else does that? Who else makes that kind of personal commitment to engage an entire community and remind them we’re here for them?”
As she has made her way through her degree program, Williams secured her Mental Health Peer Specialist certification to offer pro-bono peer services to veterans. After graduating in fall 2022 with her master’s and a certificate in Military Social Work, she intends to continue providing free mental health services to veterans.
“My personal purpose is to advocate for the removal of the mental health stigma in the veteran community, whatever way I can accomplish it,” Williams says. “They deserve a happy, free life, one that’s worthy of the sacrifices they and their family members have made. Receiving mental health assistance can make the difference between the prison of the mind and stepping into the sunshine, the freedom. That’s why I want to make a difference for them.”
Making Each Other Better
When it comes to identifying the reasons for MAVS’ resounding success at UTA, students and staff alike point to each other. Kumm attributes it to the students who engage and offer feedback, creating a grassroots-style organization that makes the program better, while Wilbert, Gadison, and Williams all emphatically insist that all credit goes to Kumm and MAVS staff members.
This may be the best illustration of why UTA’s MAVS is so acclaimed: the selfless nature of the program and the people involved, along with their collective passion for making sure every student has the chance to succeed.
A community the size of UTA’s veteran and military-connected population has the power to make a tremendous impact on campus, and Kumm says the students do so in ways that only serve to make UTA stronger. Military-connected students make great students, period, enrolling in rigorous academic tracks like nursing, electrical engineering, and business and maintaining average GPAs above 3.0.
“What’s great about our community is they come in with robust educational and life experience,” Kumm says. “They bring a different level of maturity to campus, and those skills get noticed and influence others. Our veterans understand the concept of teamwork, and they’re not afraid to ask questions. We hear consistently that they stand up as leaders in the classroom.” uta
UTA’s military-connected students have access to a wide range of support services.
MavVets, a student-veteran organization that provides campus networking with community leaders, access to veterans scholarships, and community service opportunities.
VetSuccess on Campus helps veterans, service members, and their qualified dependents succeed and thrive through a coordinated delivery of on-campus benefits, assistance, and counseling.
The Career Development Center, which helps veterans and other students pursue their professional goals and connects them to employment opportunities.
Veterans Upward Bound, a program for qualified veterans designed to motivate and assist in developing academic and other requisite skills necessary for acceptance and success in college.