Grant Supports Veterans Engineering Studies

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To increase participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies at the college level by tapping into the vast wealth of experience in the United States military, the Lee College of Engineering has won a grant to recruit and work with veterans. The grant adds an engineering specific initiative to UNC Charlotte’s strong collection of veteran services programs.

“We have grant from Office of Naval Research and Development,” said Jerry Dahlberg, a Mechanical Engineering graduate student, veteran and director of the grant program. “We are about 18 months into the three-year program, which is funded at $200,000 a year. The overall purpose of the grant is to engage military veterans in higher education engineering programs, and as a result increase STEM enrollment and the number of STEM degrees awarded in the U.S.”

A 21-year veteran, Dahlberg retired from the Army in 2010. He had an associate’s degree at the time, and then started working on his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at UNC Charlotte in 2011. He has now completed is bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is pursuing to his Ph.D.

“When I started at UNC Charlotte,” Dahlberg said, “the transition for veterans was not very smooth. It took me four months to get enrolled. The process for veterans transferring credits, getting pre-requisites approved and such was very complicated.”

Many veterans are older, have families and are also looking for or working jobs at the same time they are trying to come back to school. This complex and stressful combination can be difficult to manage, and many vets decide to opt out of going to school.

“The process is complicated enough to drive someone away from school,” Dahlberg said. “The purpose of the grant is to help them with the transition process. There are a lot of benefits available they don’t know about when they get here. This program lets them benefit from the lessons that others of us have already learned about working with the VA and UNC Charlotte. We show them we have other veterans here, so they don’t have to fight the fight alone.”

All of the military branches are downsizing, which means more and more veterans will be re-entering the workforce, and/or going to school. The Office of Naval Research would like to see many of these veterans go into STEM careers, where they can work as government contractors. As veterans, they have valuable insight into how best to work with the military.

The Naval Research Grant has four main goals. The first is outreach, which includes recruiting active military personnel who are about to leave the service. “We are visiting the military posts,” Dahlberg said, “talking to people about the benefits of getting a degree in a STEM field. We then invite to come tour our campus, where we show them around our fantastic facilities. We also participate in a number of veterans’ conferences and seminars.”

The second goal of the grant is advocacy for veteran students while they are at UNC Charlotte. This entails helping them transition into the program by explaining all of the benefits of the GI Bill, vocational rehabilitation programs, and other grants and scholarships for non-traditional students.

Goal three is the development of a military-based experimental laboratory course that encourages the application of engineering in defense-related areas. This three-credit course teaches topics such as signal jamming, carbon fiber and composite materials, parachute design and other such topics. Guest speakers are also involved in the course to talk about STEM applications in their industry.

The fourth goal is placement of graduates into jobs that have STEM connections to the military. “We have agreement with the Navy that we will help place people into Navy related jobs,” Dahlberg said. “This means working with organizations such as NAVAIR, Sikorsky helicopter and other naval interest employers. They contact us about the particular skills they are looking for in veterans, and we put them in touch with the right people.”

To date the grant program is going very well, with 85 veterans in the College of Engineering.

A number of other programs are available at UNC Charlotte to assist veterans. The Office of Veteran Services is now housed in the new Veterans Center opened in the fall of 2014 in Barnard Hall. The Veteran Services Office assists all veterans including members of the National Guard and Reserves, as well as their dependents.

“We are the university’s primary advocate for student veterans,” said David Vacchi, associate director of Veteran Services. “Our mission in two fold. We help veterans process their education benefits, and we do programming for thing such as Veterans Day, seminars, conferences and other events.”

The UNC Charlotte Graduate School started a program in fall 2015 to increase veteran participation in graduate studies. The program provides two-year assistantships valued at $36,000 to $45,000, which includes full tuition, health insurance and an assistantship stipend.

“The recipients do 20 hours of work a week, whether it is as a teaching assistant or a research assistant,” said Dr. Gil Hageman, faculty associate to the Graduate School and director of Graduate Veteran Services. “The assistantships are based on merit. Last year had three recipients including engineering student Nathan Lambert. Three more student have been accepted for this year.”

Inormation on other UNC Charlotte veterans services contact .