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Kim Blakeley was embarrassed.

It was the start of her freshman year at Montana State University and she was “the old lady in class” with tears running down her nose because the math she was learning alongside a bunch of teenagers just wasn’t clicking. She got a 43% on her first exam and the former Army Specialist who served 8 ½ years — some of which in Iraq — asked herself, “who are you fooling?”

But she persevered, for herself and for her four children, and now the 43-year-old sociology student is just one semester away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

Kim Blakeley, In Class

Kim Blakeley completes an assignment in Dr. Kelly Knight's criminology class on Sept. 7, 2021, at Montana State University.

Blakeley was just months away from losing her VA tuition assistance benefits when she enrolled at MSU. Now, says she couldn’t have made it this far in her academic career without the tuition assistance she’s received through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“They make it doable,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t succeed without this program.”

MSU Veteran Services

Student veterans work on assignments in the Veteran Support Center at Montana State University on Sept. 7, 2021.

Blakeley is one of more than 600 students at MSU who received some form of tuition assistance through the VA last academic year, many of whom are coming from active duty, said Joe Schumacher, MSU director of Veteran Services.

Joe Schumacher, MSU Veteran Services

Joe Schumacher, director of veteran services, is pictured outside of the Strand Union Building at Montana State University on Sept. 7, 2021.

About half of those students received benefits colloquially termed as Post-9/11 GI Bill, tuition assistance approved by Congress in 2008 that provides post-secondary school financial assistance for anyone who served in the military for at least 90 days after Sept. 10, 2001.

The VA last academic year paid more than $2.75 million in educational benefits to MSU-Bozeman and the veteran students receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill financial assistance, which includes up to 100% tuition, a housing stipend of up to $1,704 each month of school and up to $1,000 for books per semester for each student, according to MSU-Bozeman’s VA profile.

Before 2009, when Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits went into effect, veteran students received a monthly stipend, which was meant to cover the cost of tuition. The tuition benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill are sent from the VA to an institution and provide direct financial support for students.

Blakeley receives benefits as a disabled veteran — a different program offered through the VA — and other students receive tuition support for service in the national guard or as transferred to them from a family member.

But Veterans Services at MSU offers more support than just the expense of obtaining an education, Schumacher said. MilitaryFriendly.com rated MSU as a Top 10 military friendly school, and “that comes from what do you do to help veterans transition,” Schumacher said.

“We sit down and counsel them to make sure they have the best benefit, help them get into the program that is best suited for them,” Schumacher said of veteran students at MSU. “So much that goes into transitioning from the military other than the GI bill.”

Many veteran students are challenged by the freedom of choice offered in a college setting, Schumacher said. There’s no dress code in college. The only orders are to get an assignment done on time. That’s where the veterans service center comes in — it’s there to help veteran students adjust.

MSU offers a veterans-specific orientation, where students are exposed to the vocabulary necessary to navigate a college campus.

A veterans-specific freshman seminar class provides veteran students an opportunity to engage in debate and with topics alongside like-minded individuals. U.S. 101 gives veteran students a space to feel OK with refining academic skills many haven’t used in years, Schumacher said.

The Veterans Service Center also offers to help find — and pay for — tutors for veteran students who are struggling with a specific subject. It partners with nonprofits around Bozeman to help veteran students with the cost of child care and organizes volunteer opportunities to help other veterans in the region.

Advocating for mental health counseling is also an important piece of the work Schumacher said he does at the Veterans Service Center. Some veteran students, like Blakeley, battle PTSD. Veteran Services at MSU works to normalize “help seeking behavior,” Schumacher said.

Blakeley is also a first-generation college student, like many veteran students at MSU, Schumacher said. And while the VA tuition benefits remove the financial hurdle to obtaining an education, Blakeley said, “you still have to want it.”

“You have to do the work,” she said. “You can’t just use the benefit and expect to earn a degree.”

There are some days now that she’s in her last semester of her undergraduate career that Blakeley says she feels burnt out.

“Some days I want to kiss my kids goodnight, crack open a bottle of wine and listen to some old cheesy 90s music,” she said. “But it’s a small sacrifice to getting educated.”

Kim Blakeley, Portrait

Kim Blakeley stands in front of Montana Hall on Sept. 2, 2021, at Montana State University. Blakeley is about to complete a major in sociology/criminology with a minor in women, gender and sexuality.

And while she hasn’t spent much time in the Veterans Service Center, Blakeley said it’s apparent the staff effort to help veteran students succeed.

“They really do love on us, not just financially,” she said.

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Bret Hauff is the Chronicle’s city editor. He can be reached at bhauff@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2647.

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