National University

Veteran Student Peer Mentors Have Each Other's Back

Restoration rates from academic probation are up as much as 35 percent

In the military, it is customary to look out for one another. Whether it’s a tail gunner, wing man or rearguard, it is reassuring to know that someone’s got your back.

“When you’re focused on challenges and threats up front, It always helps to have a buddy behind you,” says Navy veteran Oliver Bayona, a graduate student at National University who also serves as a peer mentor to other veteran students. “That’s a comfort that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines come to rely upon; and when we return to civilian life, many subsequently feel vulnerable and unprotected.”

Bayona, who recently earned a master’s degree in human resource management and is currently pursuing his MBA, joined the military in 1989 and still serves in the Navy Reserves. At one point he was driving aircraft carriers, so he understands the culture of team work and the bonds that are formed under demanding and occasionally intense conditions. When lives are on the line and critical missions are at stake, each individual counts on the support of the man or woman operating next to them.

Of course the pressure is different in a university setting, where veterans may suddenly find that they are very much on their own. Lives are still on the line, albeit in a different manner. Academic success and failure isn’t a matter of life and death; but it can determine the difference between the steady advancement of a rewarding profession and the stagnation and struggles of a low-paying job.

Even with the benefits of a G.I. Bill, the transition from soldier to student can be difficult and demanding. There can be a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork to navigate, along with delays, glitches, or even denials in funding. Add to that the medical issues that veterans commonly deal with, and it equates with the toughest obstacle courses that any recruit may face.

Jeremy Yoshimoto is an Air Force veteran studying marketing communications at National University. He is an undergraduate at the half-way mark, with about a year and a half left to complete his degree. With three tours of Iraq under his belt, Yoshimoto wanted to attend an online school so that he would have the freedom to travel while he studies. He researched several universities and concluded that National was the best option, especially for veterans.

The former staff sergeant made his way from Indiana to Nevada, and then California after enrolling. “I was going through a lot of stuff at the time,” he says, including treatment at a Veterans Administration hospital for combat related injuries. Out west on his own, dealing with health problems and homework, the veteran student soon found himself on academic probation. He needed a wing man, and that’s where Oliver Bayona came in.

“I wouldn’t be in school now if it weren’t for Oliver,” Yoshimoto explains. “I failed a class while going through treatment at the VA and it impacted my GI Bill. I came very close to slipping over the edge. The process for regaining my benefits was overwhelming. I reached a point where I said to myself, ‘I think I’m done with this.’ After 12 years in the military and all I had been through, I was really tired and frustrated. The constant stress and continual jumping through hoops really wore me down, but having a peer mentor made all the difference. He really helped me out a lot.”

Bayona is one of five peer mentors working through the National University Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success (NUCEVSS), a one-stop referral center funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant to provide guidance and assistance in directing veterans to the services they need to succeed in their studies and complete their degrees. It is a 25 to 40-hour-per-week commitment for Bayona. He earns a modest, tax-free stipend as part of the VA Work Study Program, but says the true reward is watching veteran students’ GPAs increase, helping to get them off probation when necessary, and seeing them complete their academic programs and graduate.

“Because we are veterans, we understand what most of our peers are going through,” he says. “It helps to have a fellow vet to talk to. We’re here for any little thing, but that can end up making a huge difference.”

As many as 25 veteran students may walk into NUCEVSS on the busiest days and ask to see a peer mentor. Bayona and his fellow mentor may provide assistance to as many as 80 veterans a month. Since the program started at National University, they have made a profound difference. In the past year, the restoration rate for veteran students on academic probation at National University has risen from between five and 12 percent to a 40 percent restoration rate.

“I’m back on track now, and in academic good standing,” says Yashimoto. “It’s been four or five months since my appeal went through and thanks to Oliver, I’ve been doing fine ever since. National University is a really good university with a great program for veterans. What we’re going through, the issues we have to deal with are different from your typical student. It’s like we speak a totally different language, and sometimes we may need extra motivation from someone who’s been through the same thing before and can help us out.”

Bayona takes great satisfaction from helping veteran students like Yashimoto to persevere and succeed. “Jeremy never gave up, and it has inspired me,” he says “Getting over that difficult hump and graduating from National University will benefit him – and many others I’ll never even know – for the rest of his life. There are going to be a lot of opportunities in his future, and I can’t think of anybody more deserving.”