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Kansas City's College Students In The Military Face Deployment And Disparities During Pandemic

Jessica Pal
Jessica Pal (R) is a KU junior who was deployed to a COVID testing site in spring and summer as part of the Kansas National Guard's 1077th Ground Ambulance Company.

How do you study and serve at the same time? Kansas National Guard members explain the difficulty of deploying for the pandemic and protests while in school.

Jessica Pal was among the University of Kansas students sent home to study last spring when the pandemic hit.

But the KU junior didn't go home like the rest of her friends. Pal, then a sophomore, serves in the Kansas National Guard and as part of the 1077th Ground Ambulance Company, she was deployed to Dodge City, Kansas, to run a COVID-19 testing site from April 30 to August 13.

She knows her non-military friends didn’t exactly have it easy when they had to leave the KU campus at the end of last semester.

“But,” she says, “I feel like the deployment thing was a little bit harder, because I found out that I was going to go help out with the Dodge City mission pretty much the day before.”

The pandemic has impacted all levels of education, but the population of military students has been hit harder than others.

While difficult to document, it appears that Pal is part of a trend. At one local school, Park University, military-affiliated enrollment is down 23% from last year compared to their general population of students, which is down 6%, according to Greg Gunderson, Park's president.

The university, headquartered in Parkville, Missouri, has 42 satellite sites in 22 states, many of which are on military bases.

“It’s a very specific number that’s impacted; we can tie it right down to the penny,” Gunderson says.

Coronavirus and civil-unrest deployments are one factor at play in the lower enrollment, but not the only factor. Sarah Weygand, Park’s director of military and veteran student services, says that military-affiliated students dealt with all of the same difficulties their civilian counterparts did, but with extra challenges.

She says that active duty military, veteran, and military-dependent students are all non-traditional students. Many have children, are actively serving, or might have service-related disabilities. Like the rest of the population, their spouses may have lost jobs ,and their children’s schools closed.

“I think their choices came down to: do I go to school and try to juggle that as well as taking care of my family and my children and the chaos that hit when the quarantine happened?" Weygand says. "Or do I take something off my plate that’s going to directly affect me and not directly affect my family members or my service?”

Other universities struggle to measure how their military students have been impacted, but they know they have been.

Jessica Pal
Jessica Pal (top left) at the Dodge City COVID testing site with National Guard students from Wichita State and Kansas State University.

Sean Navarro at KU’s Military-Affiliated Student Center says that it’s hard to track how that population of students has been impacted by the pandemic even as his office works to support them.

“We do a lot of the data tracking, especially as required for reporting purposes, but we don’t as a practice track the number of students with military affiliations who are withdrawing,” Navarro explains. “That’s not a number that’s easily accessible.”

Navarro says that the VA acted quickly in the spring to ensure that students using their GI Bills had as little disruption as possible, which really helped those he serves.

Normally, a veteran student using the Post 9/11 GI Bill must take in-person courses in order to qualify for the maximum benefit amount. When the pandemic forced coursework online, the VA passed legislation allowing those students to continue receiving their entire benefit. The caveat was that the coursework must have originally begun in-person.

"We would have had a lot more issues without that legislation," Navarro says.

Sebastian Dutton grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, and decided to join the National Guard, which is now funding his undergraduate degree at KU.

“I grew up in a very poor family where college was out of the question entirely, and I’m about to get a bachelor’s in chemistry, of all things,” Dutton says.

He says that he’ll finish in May before he moves onto his first active duty station as a commissioned officer, but for a while during the spring and summer, he thought he might have to tack on an extra semester or two because he’d missed classes for a COVID-19 deployment.

Like Pal, Dutton is part of the 1077th Ground Ambulance Company and was deployed to Dodge City from April 16 to June 20.

Dutton says a lot of his classes translated well to online, just like non-military students’ classes did. But his experience was different from his peers.

“I still have an incomplete class I have to do, and I have a lab that I have to retake,” Dutton says. “My professor can’t transport and teach me molecular mechanics over a computer while at the same time I’m trying to run a testing site, you know?”

The Kansas National Guard reports that at its height it had 667 members deployed in support of coronavirus-related missions. Now, only 200 are in the field.

Students like Dutton and Pal in their school’s ROTC program had no choice but to soldier on.

Pal is from Oklahoma and is the first in her family to go to college. She’s now a pre-med junior and was able to keep up with her classwork in the spring; she only had to take one incomplete, which she finished over the summer.

“When I had breaks, I would start studying for tests,” Pal says. “Sometimes while working, I had the people on my team look at my notes and try to make up questions.”

Weygand, who is also a veteran, says that education raises people out of tough situations, and she hopes that the general population wants that for its military personnel.

“The military itself wants an educated populace,” Weygand says. “I think the general population needs to think about OK, once you’ve served we want to take care of those veterans, we want to thank them, we want to make sure they’re taken care of. And if we can get them educated, when they leave they can get good jobs.”

She says their education helps the economy and society overall. “You’re not leaving like you did in WWI and WWII and now you don’t have anything backing you up. You can go get a job. You can add to society.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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