CARBONDALE — When you’re one of them, it’s easy to spot a former soldier on campus, a veteran and SIU student said.
“It’s like you can eyeball it, based on how they walk or carry themselves, that they're like you and they get it,” said Zane Ecklund, a Navy Veteran.
Three years ago, Ecklund was serving in the Navy and saw a flier for Southern Illinois University on his ship. Now, he’s a full-time student.
“When you realize there are so many other veterans here, and the school does so much for us, it kind of puts you at ease,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
At SIU, that feeling might be more potent than at other schools. A recent ranking from VICE News named SIU one of the top militarized universities in the country.
The 100 schools on that list are ranked by how closely tied they are to the country’s military establishment, meaning they “produce the greatest number of students who are employed by the Intelligence Community (IC), have the closest relationships with the national security state, and profit the most from American war-waging,” according to VICE.
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SIU was ranked 23rd, following 22 schools based in the Washington, D.C., area, and ahead of colleges like Harvard University, Purdue University and Indiana University.
The militarized label doesn’t surprise several SIU professors and students, including Tom Imboden, who teaches in the school of Information Systems and Applied Technologies.
That department lends itself to students with a military background, or someone who wants a government job, he said.
“I see a lot of people who want an education in cybersecurity, who go onto to work with intelligence, because it kind of speaks their language,” he said. "And it's something that is needed everywhere."
Every so often, Imboden will get an ominous visit from investigators checking out students who have applied for top secret government jobs.
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“We do have students who work in those top secret capacities, but we don’t know what they’re doing, obviously,” he said. “It makes you wonder, is this nerd who sat in my class every day a spy? Probably not, but I guess it's possible.”
A few years ago, SIU was named a center of Academic Excellence in Information, a title granted by the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The NSA recently funded a grant for cybersecurity co-ops at SIU and seven regional community colleges in the area.
The connections to military have a far reach, according to Gary Kitsner, who teaches in the graduate school.
“There’s a lot of people who teach on this campus that have military backgrounds and I think that opens up a lot of doors,” Kitsner said. “We will do everything in our power so that every military member, regardless of where they are stationed, will get an education.”
He oversees the Fire Service Management department, but teaches students homeland security tactics, along with how to respond to active shooters, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Attaching the “militarized” term to SIU also trickles down to how much the school helps veterans get into the right classes — and finish them. About 700 students get aid from the GI Bill, and others get tuition waivers from the National Guard. Some are put in more advanced courses after getting back from military training.
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SIU also offers more than 50 satellite offices, many of which are at military bases around the country, for students who can’t physically be in the classroom, but want to stay updated on their studies.
That’s how Gavin McDaniel finished his degree at SIU. McDaniel, 27, joined the National Guard when he was 17 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. During classes in Carbondale and at various satellite offices, he studied network security with the goal of working for the FBI.
“The Army sparked that interest for me, and SIU kind of helped me narrow it down,” he said. “A lot of the classes aligned with some of the training I had already gotten, so it made sense for me.”
SIU’s ranking probably goes beyond career-planning and tuition costs for veterans, according to Paul Copeland, who oversees the school's Veterans Center.
“It's all about understanding the unique needs and lifestyle, so if we have a guy who is in the middle of class and he gets deployed, we shouldn't just say he drops out,” Copeland said. "Being military friendly means noticing the differences between everyday students and veterans, and stepping in where we need to."