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Michael Kirchner speaks at Military Appreciation Day at Purdue Fort Wayne

Military Student Services strives to increase reach

By Blake Sebring

November 7, 2023

One of the essential functions of Military Student Services at Purdue University Fort Wayne is to help past and present service members transition into higher education. That can mean several different things, including assistance with applications for education benefits, making connections with other campus and community resources, and cultivating a supportive environment by providing positive training for faculty and staff.

It’s estimated more than 200 military-affiliated students are taking classes on campus this fall, but there might be more. Some may not know about the office, or they are not using their benefits for their own education, according to Michael Kirchner, director of Military Student Services at Purdue Fort Wayne.  

After becoming the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Military and Veterans Resource Center’s first director in 2013, Kirchner came to PFW in 2017 to join the Department of Organizational Leadership. He added duties as PFW’s MSS director in 2020, and started working to enhance the office’s effectiveness and profile.

Efforts to establish that higher profile seem to be working. PFW’s annual Military Appreciation Day grew to more than 1,000 attendees at the most recent observance on Sept. 14. Compare that to 250 during the first year, and 500 in 2022, and the positive trajectory is evident.

“Veterans and active military members are not just part of our campus community, they are an integral part of our region, setting a powerful example of steadfast commitment to the protection of the freedom we too often take for granted,” Chancellor Ron Elsenbaumer said during this year’s observance. “Your presence enriches our campus and your contributions to our community are immeasurable. May we continue to support and appreciate you in all that you do.”

For another key contributor, the buy-in from leaders at both PFW and Indiana University Fort Wayne seems to be stronger than ever.

“There are a lot of moving parts, but I feel like we’re finally getting into a good spot where we’re supposed to be with Military Appreciation Day,” said Jason Bonar, B.S. ’23, MSS program director.

Student Jamie Ewell joined the Army out of high school and recently enrolled at PFW to start on an engineering degree at age 25. He found the MSS website over the summer and now works as one of the office’s student workers.

“They were extraordinarily helpful in clarifying the process for using my GI Bill to come to school,” Ewell said. “They directed me to resources at the VA, clearly laid out what paperwork I needed to submit, and always replied very quickly to my questions. When I saw the email that they were looking for student workers, I saw the opportunity to work closely with the team here and help other students the same way I was helped. They have continued to help me through the semester and keep me connected to other veteran resources and volunteer opportunities.”

Kirchner and Bonar still envision what MSS can become and how it can improve serving those who have already or are currently serving us. They’d like to raise funding for an on-campus social lounge where military-affiliated students can congregate and rebuild some of the camaraderie lost when transitioning out of the military. Unlike other specialized groups in Walb Student Union, MSS lacks space that’s easy to access or large enough for meetings.

Kirchner understands the specialized needs and unique experiences of veterans who are typically older than traditional college students. Needing money for college in 2000 and believing he’d never be deployed, Kirchner enlisted in the Army National Guard, and then the 9/11 tragedies happened the following year. He served one tour in Iraq with a field artillery unit, leaving the military in 2006 to earn bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and becoming a professor of organizational leadership.

Maybe the most significant recent MSS achievement is the January policy change by PFW’s Faculty Senate that allows veterans to receive course credit for classes they took while serving. Based on American Council of Education recommendations and military transcripts, that includes studies in leadership or communications.

For years, PFW has received accreditation as a “Military Friendly Campus,” but Kirchner says this decision takes the university to another level.

“I can’t say enough how awesome that is,” Kirchner said. “We are one of a very small number of schools in Indiana that does this. We have veterans asking all the time, `I was in for 20 years, what kind of credit can I get for that?’”

For those who served over many years and completed extensive training, led potentially dozens of soldiers, and were responsible for millions of dollars of equipment, the credit for their service is well-deserved and will ease their transition.

The next MSS event is the “Serving Those Who Serve” brunch on Nov. 9, which along with campus veterans, honors all those in service-oriented degree programs or professions including first responders, social workers, and individuals working in law enforcement, healthcare, and education. PFW, IUFW, and a few community leaders, will serve a complimentary meal to those attending as a thank-you. The opportunity lasts from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the International Ballroom at Walb Student Union.

“The brunch is becoming a signature event on campus,” Kirchner said. “It has a special kind of purpose, which ties together so many people.”

More MSS goals include creating a campus advisory or a community partners boards, and Kirchner would love to host a veterans ball to honor service members, increase camaraderie, and raise awareness.

To learn more, contact Military Student Services at [email protected].