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JOHN MIKELSON The former Army medic became an undergrad at 45, and now helps veterans of all ages make the college transition.

During his 26 years in the military, John Mikelson served as a medic for more than 800 soldiers, was cited for recruiting 450 people into the U.S. Army Reserve, and managed supplies, arms, food, fuel, and personnel on a highly regimented schedule.

But the organization and discipline he cultivated didn’t completely prepare him for the independent structure of college life when he returned to The University of Iowa at age 45.

When Mikelson first came to the University in 1978, he intended to study pre-med, appeasing parents who didn’t want him going to nursing school. But after two years, he wasn’t getting the grades they expected.

The second time around, Mikelson made more than just a successful leap from military man to college student—he helped create a program that helps veterans of all ages adjust to campus life.

Upon returning to the UI in 2005, Mikelson began a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Older than most of his teaching assistants, professors, and undergraduate peers, he had a tough time finding the sense of family he’d felt in the military.

“Life is different when you are a grandparent and cannot relate to the majority of undergrads, except the ones who’ve seen and done more than the average student,” Mikelson says.

That began to change once he started mentoring young troops. Mikelson soon joined fellow undergraduate veterans to create a campus veterans’ resource that would provide advising, information, and a sense of structure and family they found missing.

“We are too big a school to not have a first-class transition center for our returning students if we truly want them to succeed,” he says.

In 2005, Mikelson, McKinley Bailey, a 2006 UI grad who’s now a state representative, and Jared Josephson, currently a student in the UI College of Law, helped found the University of Iowa Veterans Association.

Since its creation, the UIVA has earned Hawkeye Student Organization Leadership and Service Awards for outstanding student organization and outstanding contribution to the greater community. Mikelson was honored for community contributions and organizational leadership.

In January 2006, the UIVA, with full support from the University, found a home in the newly established Veterans Center, where Mikelson serves as veterans’ advisor. The program is located in the UI Communications Center.

Mikelson’s work helps ensure that “no student veteran gets lost in the academic process because someone let them down or they could not get the information they needed in a timely manner,” he says. He completed his BA in May 2007, and now is pursuing a master’s degree in higher education through the UI College of Education.

“John is an older veteran who returned from the military with a vision to become a teacher,” says Larry Lockwood, UI registrar, who recently helped the Veterans Center arrange an audio conference for faculty on supporting vets. “Not all our veterans have their dreams so clearly laid out. He saw the need to help the younger vets reintegrate into civilian life and gain their vision of what they want to be.”

In January, Mikelson and student veterans from 225 campuses in 46 states founded the Student Veterans of America. As Midwest regional director and chairman of the organization’s board of directors, Mikelson joins other SVA members in local and national efforts to make sure returning veterans receive GI Bill benefits and locate campus resources.

SVA members recently lobbied Congress for improvements in local, state, and federal policy that make it easier for veterans to receive college funding.

“SVA leadership are in D.C. about every other week it seems,” Mikelson says. “If the government is promising to pay for your education, you should not have to work 40 hours outside of class, too.”

Back at the UI, Mikelson daily advises veterans on medical care, financial aid, transcript credits, and how to combat stress, but he’s attuned to broader veterans’ issues as well. He notes that there are 50 to 75 homeless veterans living in Iowa City, and about 170,000 across the country.

“I hope my actions will help in making the transition easier for this country’s next greatest generation rather than the next homeless epidemic,” Mikelson says.

Story by Gloria Hurtado; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

April 7, 2008