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A Conversation with Lorrie Spaulding, Director of Veterans Services at USM

A photo of Lorrie Spaulding

Lorrie Spaulding is the Director of Veterans Services and the School Certifying Official (SCO) for USM's Division of Student Success. USM's Veterans Services is a resource for veterans, service members, and their families. Transitioning from combat to the classroom can be challenging and so can navigating the U.S. government benefits known as the GI Bill®. Lorrie provides oversight for the Veterans Resource Center and its programs & events, as well as certifying courses to the VA. We caught up Lorrie to talk about the military community at USM and how her team of veteran students support each other’s academic success and transition into civilian life.

Lorrie, thanks for sitting down with us! How did you come to be Director of Veterans’ Services?

In my prior role, I was a financial aid counselor at a local for-profit school and part of my role was certifying GI Bill benefits for student veterans. I loved the school and the students, but I was looking for a new challenge. I sure found it at USM when I arrived in 2014! I had never worked in public higher education before, but USM saw potential in me and gave me a chance. All these years later, I’m glad that they did.

What do you enjoy most about the role?

Every single day is different. I love that. I start the day with a planned calendar, and then the phone rings, or an email comes in, and it’s a whole new day. I especially like that my students are adults. They have had experiences in their military careers (good and bad) that they bring with them that enrich our program and our school. I learn as much from our students as they do from our university. The biggest lesson for me has been that everyone has a story. It is their story, it deserves to be heard and recognized, and we have a special opportunity be a part of the next chapter in that story. How cool is that?

Can you give us an idea what USM’s veteran community looks like?

In 2020, USM had 438 students using GI Bill benefits- the highest number of any college or university in Maine. Roughly 300 of those students are veterans and military members; others are dependents of veterans who transferred their benefits. The average age of our veteran students is 27, and about 25 percent are women. Interestingly, our top two majors are business and STEM, specifically nursing and engineering. Our department (Veterans Services) oversees Veterans Resource Centers (VRCs) on all three USM campuses.

How has veterans services at USM evolved over the years?

I think the biggest change is recognition that veteran success requires more from the university than helping veterans understand how to use their education benefits; it’s about being a partner for them during a time of transition.

In my first years I spent hundreds of hours listening to our veteran students; what I heard was what you might expect when two very different cultures come together. “They don’t understand me” and “they don’t know what I want or need” were common themes. Veteran students also expressed a need for a singular point of contact where they could go with questions unique to veterans, such as help with records requests and personal or financial needs. Luckily, we had a thriving Veterans Resource Center, so I could just hang out and listen. The students invested in me; I invested in them; and so did USM.

The biggest change in institutional support came with the arrival of President Glenn Cummings and Provost Jeannine Diddle Uzzi. Right out of the gate, they both stepped up to help our students and support our program. Jeannine even leads a veterans book group at the Portland Vet Center.

Overall, we’ve strived to provide the people and the place to help veterans feel comfortable, cared for, and understood at USM.

How is USM continuing to improve its services for veteran students?

One significant change has been USM’s process for awarding veterans college credit for prior military education and training through what’s known as “Joint Services Transcripts” or JSTs. It is usually up to the individual institution to determine how to award credit for prior learning, including military training and education. USM faculty take the time to sit down with veteran students to review their JST, engage in a conversation about their experience, understand how their military training translates to academic training, and award credit when they are confident it has been earned. It is imperative that we maintain academic integrity as well as be open-minded about military training and education. This is not the case with all institutions.

One of the biggest ways we’ve strived to improve veterans services is by being willing to listen to, learn from, and empower veteran students. No one can truly understand the veteran experience except other veterans.

To give you an example, one of our veteran students reached out to me toward the end of the Fall 2020 semester to share her thoughts on how USM could better serve women veterans. She proposed the idea of a women veterans student group. Today, it is an officially recognized USM student group thanks to her taking the initiative, and it has been growing by the week.

Another example is our recently revamped peer mentoring program. After hearing constructive feedback from veterans services staff and students about our previous peer mentoring model, we decided to make a change. My amazing graduate student, Alison Nolan (MSW), sent out a call for volunteers, and, of course, our students responded.

The Fall 2020 semester was a challenging one for many students. We learned that some were struggling with feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. My students were having a tough time, so I reached out to my work study team and asked for volunteers to personally check in with all of our veteran students to remind them that we are here and we care. My team jumped into action that same day. Many appreciated the call, and some even had questions that we were able to help answer for them. I love that our students never shy away from helping each other.

A photo of Director of Veterans' Services Lorrie Spaulding

Since then, we’ve formalized the check-in calling system with the help of one of my work-study students, Emily Brazee. She put out a call for volunteers, assigned and tracked the calls, and has three standing check-ins scheduled with students; the first scheduled just prior to the course add/drop deadline; the second scheduled before midterms; and the third scheduled before final exams. We want to make sure our students have the support they need during what can be particularly stressful times. I am grateful to Emily for her leadership.

Maine as a state has a strong history of military service and a significant population of veterans. How does USM work with partners in the community, in state government, etc. to support veteran students?

The transition from military service into civilian life can be very tough for veterans. For some, it can manifest as multiple starts and stops in multiple colleges and universities, which can mean that by the time the student arrives at USM ready to finish their degree, they have exhausted their education benefits. Thanks to the amazing work of the USM Foundation and the generosity of Joe and Sheri Boulos of Falmouth, USM created the Boulos Veteran Scholars, which expands upon the USM Promise Scholarship program model to help veterans complete their degree.

When I started at USM, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, as they say. One of my former students, who is a retired Navy SEAL, came by my office one day and asked if I had met Adria Horn, who at the time was the new director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services (MBVS). I didn’t, so he helped facilitate an introduction. I knew immediately she was the real deal.

The Maine Bureau of Veterans' Services was established in 1947 by the State of Maine and is part of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management. MBVS’ mission is to help Mainers who served, and their loved ones, understand and navigate the benefits, services, and programs available to them. This includes education benefits for Maine veterans and service members.

Over the next few years, we began to develop our relationship with the Bureau. Adria visited the Veterans Resource Center for a Q&A, joined us for veterans’ orientations, and partnered with USM to host the first annual Military Veteran Symposium in December 2017, which featured guest speakers from the VA, personal stories by surviving veterans, and panel discussions.

We have devoted time to build relationships with the nearly 400 Veteran Services Organizations (VSOs) in Maine, including Boots 2 Roots, Maine Hire-A-Vet, and Easterseals. Jen Fullmer first introduced me to Boots 2 Roots when she referred a service member to USM for enrollment. Jen is also the real deal; once, when I had a student who was at risk of homelessness, Jen and her family offered the student a place to temporarily stay until he found permanent housing.

Easterseals has been an invaluable resource for our students, from housing to emergency funding. Their case managers are outstanding. I have referred many students to them over the years and they have always come through for them.

The Maine-Hire-A-Vet program is also terrific. Auta Main headed the program for years and I hosted several trainings she offered to local HR and hiring managers on how to be veteran friendly, read a veteran resume and offering support.

The Vet Centers in Portland, Sanford and Lewiston have been tremendous partners. Before COVID-19, one of the Portland counselors would spend time in our VRC each week. Since COVID-19, they have offered several different workshops for our students (in our virtual VRC) on sleep (because veterans don’t) and stress management, isolation and depression. All three program directors, Cliff Trott (Portland), Amy Marcotte (Sanford), and Scott Hutcherson (Lewiston) are always ready to jump in and partner to help our students.

What makes USM a truly great place for veterans everywhere to use their education benefits?

As I mentioned before, the university recognizes its role in being a partner for veteran students during their transition from military service. That means making it easy to get credit for prior experience and education; helping with job placements; having outstanding leadership programming and online programming so veterans from out of state can enroll; and creating opportunities for veterans to serve each other and the community.

Also, our process for prior learning assessments and credit transfer is getting better, though we recognize there is always room for improvement. Rusty Dolleman, USM’s Director of Prior Learning, reviews military training certificates and awards credit when appropriate. He also works with our students to create portfolios for training, education and experience that meet the learning goals and outcomes of specific classes, and a faculty member reviews the portfolio before credit is awarded. It’s a great partnership, and hugely beneficial to all of our students.

Faculty members Dan Jenkins and Tara Coste of the Leadership and Organizational Studies program were some of the first faculty to recognize and award credit off the Joint Service Transcript, specifically for the Leadership & Organizational Studies program. I know of at least one student who was able to receive PLA credit, complete his degree program a full semester early, and successfully secure a job with the federal government as a result.

Any parting thoughts?

I definitely subscribe to the “it takes a village” approach. No one can do everything themselves, so it’s nice to belong to a community that cares for, respects, and supports our veterans.

Lorrie Spaulding can be reached at (207) 780-5232 or by email.