Lisa Payan, a former gunner with the Army military police, sought spiritual groundedness. Cody Mills had worked on Black Hawk helicopters but hoped to heal others through music. And Ian Beaty, who serves in the Army National Guard, wanted a master’s degree program that could accommodate a potential deployment.
Each of the military veterans discovered, with a touch of surprise, a place to fulfill their goals at a small Catholic school located 10 miles south of Portland.
Marylhurst University, founded by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, serves a large and vibrant community of student veterans, attracting a population with unique needs through its supportive faculty and staff, diversity, degree programs, and small classes. It also gives vets the space to share their stories and know they are valued.
“The faculty at Marylhurst helped me recognize the importance of sharing my experiences,” said Payan, 41. Payan recently was awarded a fellowship through the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Student Veterans of America for her proposal to expand the Veterans Affairs’ chaplaincy program.
With veterans comprising more than 12 percent of its student body, Marylhurst is one of many U.S. Catholic universities supporting military veterans. At the University of Portland, veterans make up just 0.7 percent of the student body, but the university is ranked as one of the top schools in the West for veterans by U.S. News and World Report.
The number of vets at both Oregon Catholic universities likely is higher than reported, given the schools don’t have a way to track veterans who are not using VA benefits.
Nearly all veterans find their return to civilian life punctuated with difficulty. They must secure housing and a job, find a new community and form new friendships. Many also cope with injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. To enroll and remain at a college or university can be daunting during such a transition, said the 31-year-old Mills, who spent time in Afghanistan. “You can’t just go from combat zone to classroom.”
Payan said a valuable way schools can support vets is by helping them navigate the complex system of veterans’ educational benefits. Vets are grateful to take advantage of the VA’s financial assistance but often find the paperwork a nightmare.
“There are so many nuances and the laws and rules change so often,” said Beaty, 37, who earned a master’s in interdisciplinary studies from Marylhurst in 2016. He joked that any student who successfully navigates it all “should get three credits is business administration.”
Mills, a music therapy major, said Marylhurst did a great job helping him understand and use the benefits he feels blessed to have.
Working to sort out the complexities are Melinda Hendley, the VA school certifying specialist at Marylhurst, and part-time student workers.
The bulk of educational assistance veterans receive is through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which covers up to 100 percent of tuition, books and living expenses (see sidebar). Some universities, including Marylhurst, also participate in the VA’s Yellow Ribbon program. At private schools, the program typically bridges the gap between GI Bill benefits and the total tuition, although there’s not usually a gap for the majority of vets at Marylhurst.
Hendley said one of the most unique benefits the school offers veterans is a military scholarship, which students can use even if their GI Bill benefits are exhausted.
Joan Jagodnik, director of student services at Marylhurst, said the school is trying to grow its already-strong support and outreach to those who have served in the military. The school recently held a career and resource fair for vets, co-sponsored by Portland Community College, with topics such as maximizing VA benefits and translating military experience into effective resumes. The school has an active student veterans group and is working to further educate faculty and staff on veterans’ needs. Marylhurst also recently expanded its military scholarship to include veterans’ dependents.
Like Mills and Beaty, Payan is not Catholic but appreciates Marylhurst’s Catholic foundation and history. Raised evangelical Christian, she wasn’t practicing when she applied to the school’s master’s in divinity program. But she “was drawn to the spiritual element of the school,” she said.
The diverse university gave Payan the opportunity to learn alongside Buddhists, agnostics and Latter-day Saints, as well as other Christians. “To witness their call to serve others and their sense of the divine — it’s been incredible,” said Payan, who’s worked full time at the VA office in Portland while attending school part time. She now worships at an Episcopal church.
A big draw for Beaty was that unlike other area universities he’d researched, Marylhurst wouldn’t force him to start his degree program over if he were deployed mid-semester. Sure enough, he was sent to Afghanistan half way through his master’s program at Marylhurst. After nearly a year away, he was able to pick up where he left off.
Veterans also say they are attracted to Marylhurst’s peaceful campus, small class sizes — on average 10 students — and the diversity of their classmates. The median age of undergraduates is 35, and many have full-time jobs.
Payan, who hopes to complete her master’s thesis this summer, said she’s grateful there are Marylhurst professors who encourage veterans to share their powerful experiences in the military — stories that can enrich academic instruction but often are difficult to share comfortably on a typical college campus.
“It can be hard for vets to jump into those conversations with 18- and 19-year-olds unless someone is willing to acknowledge they have gone around the world and seen poverty and pain and destruction,” said Payan.
She pointed out that the wider society often dismisses veterans, as well. “Veterans are in the pews next to you, in the grocery store line, your neighbor,” she said. “They have compelling stories to tell and usually no one wants to hear them. I’m afraid most Americans want vets to go to school, land a job and just be normal.”
At Marylhurst, said Payan, her “voice was heard and respected.”