CU Denver celebrates top ranking for student veterans
by Vicki Hildner
On Nov. 9, 2013, thousands of Colorado veterans gathered on the CU Denver campus to celebrate Veterans Day with food, fellowship and the traditional fireworks display. They could also celebrate the fact that Military Times had just named CU Denver the 2014 top-ranked four-year college for veterans in Colorado.
Military Times, the organization comprising Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Corps Times, created the “Best for Vets” list by emphasizing academic rigor and factoring in service member enrollment, percentage of tuition covered by the GI Bill and availability of specific programs to help service members.
“We have programs designed to make our CU Denver veterans successful from their very first day on campus,” said Izzy Abass, program director of CU Denver Boots to Suits. “From student mentors, to our nationally-recognized Student Veteran Organization, to the innovative Boots to Suits campus-to-career transition program, we’re offering support and guidance every step of the way.”
Nearly a thousand student veterans attend CU Denver, where they have found a community that supports their academic progress, career goals and transition to civilian life.
Aaron Torres, Doing his Part
After 9/11, Aaron Torres wanted to “do my part” by serving his country. He never imagined that he might someday do his part by serving other veterans as a constituent advocate for Sen. Michael Bennet.
When he graduated from Cherry Creek High School, Torres enlisted in the U. S. Navy to see the world. During two tours of duty, he traveled to 22 different countries, working in electronic warfare and intelligence. After he exited the Navy, he started his college career at Hawaii Pacific University, but he transferred to CU Denver to reconnect with family and friends and establish roots in Colorado.
“… that got me passionate …”
At CU Denver, Torres majored in criminal justice in the School of Public Affairs. He also discovered his inner political activist, when he joined veterans from the Office of Veteran Student Services (OVSS) in lobbying university administrators to grant student veterans academic credit for their military service.
“Before that issue, I didn’t identify as a veteran. I just identified as a regular guy,” Torres recalled. “But that got me passionate about veterans’ affairs, especially because the school was willing to listen and make changes.”
The experience galvanized Torres; he became involved in student government in a variety of capacities, including conflict resolution. After he graduated in May 2013, he continued a part-time job in the office of the chief counsel, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while he prepared to enter law school. But he postponed law school when Izzy Abass, director of the CU Denver’s “Boots to Suits” program, suggested he have coffee with one of Abass’ contacts in Bennet’s office. Coffee led to an interview, and the interview led a new position and, for Torres, a new passion.
“I was definitely excited to work for a senator,” Torres said, “but having the ability to help vets at a state level—that was incredibly exciting.”
“… direct lines to VA directors …”
Torres is based in Grand Junction, Colo., but works on cases around the state, most frequently helping vets with their health and education benefits. Every case with a positive outcome affirms his decision to take this position.
“When I [used to] call the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)] hotline [on behalf of] myself, I get one kind of response,” Torres said, “but now I have direct lines to VA directors’ offices. They are definitely responsive when I call.”
During his four years at CU Denver, Torres watched the OVSS grow and change to better serve veterans.
“Now you watch veterans walk through the door who say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. This is culture shock. I just got out of the military yesterday,’” Torres said. “[OVSS] alleviates the stress, takes your hand, walks you through the process and gets results.”
Kami Fluetsch, Founded Lady Vets
When Kami Fluetsch was growing up, her grandfather, who had spent 22 years in the U.S. Navy, liked to call her his “Navy nurse.” Although she “didn’t like war and didn’t like hospitals,” her grandfather’s influence proved indelible. Before Fluetsch turned 18, she persuaded her parents to allow her to enlist in the Navy.
“I wanted to become a doctor, and my family didn’t have the money to send me to medical school,” Fluetsch said. “I saw [the Navy] as my way to med school.”
During her eight years of service as a hospital corpsman—the Navy equivalent of a medic—Fluetsch trained as a cardiovascular technician and was stationed in Connecticut, California and Maryland. She was deployed to Kuwait in 2006 and arrived there on her 21st birthday. She used her vacation time to pursue her true passion—providing humanitarian medical aid on non-Navy affiliated trips to Peru, Ecuador and Uganda.
“… a wake-up call …”
When she left the military in January, 2010, she came to CU Denver with her sights ultimately set on the CU School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Her transition to civilian life was not a smooth one.
“In the military, I had this structured life for eight years,” Fluetsch said. “Going to college in a non-structured environment was a wake-up call. I had to learn time management and have more self-discipline, but I appreciated college more because I had matured since high school.”
Fluetsch will graduate ahead of schedule in December of 2013 because she “took every course I could,” including Maymester. She has volunteered for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), AmeriCorps and the OVSS, and she founded Lady Vets, a social group supporting women vets on campus.
“Lady Vets just grew overnight,” Fluetsch said. “All the vet events on campus were male centered. I said ‘Let’s do some female-friendly activities and get more women.’”
“… absolutely recommend CU Denver …”
An international studies major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), Fluetsch just completed an internship in Washington, D.C. She hopes to become a clinical device representative for an international pacemaker company. She dropped the idea of med school when she decided that she didn’t want to spend another decade studying medicine before she could practice, but she still plans to continue doing overseas medical mission work.
“I would absolutely recommend CU Denver to other vets,” Fluetsch said. “Through the OVSS, I was mentored, supported and helped in my transition to civilian life.”
Dennis Mont’Ros, Bridge Builder
In August 2011, when Dennis Mont’Ros started CU Denver as a freshman, he was 38 years old. Despite the fact that he had spent half his life in the military and was two decades older than most of his fellow students, he found a home, a community and success at the university.
“CU Denver is one of the best places to transition out of the military back into academic life,” Mont’Ros said. “It has a nurturing atmosphere that was crucial to me as I tried to understand who I am as a civilian.”
When he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1991, right after he finished high school, Mont’Ros was looking for a way to move his life forward and become independent from his family. For the next 20 years, he served around the world with postings in Washington, D.C., Guam, Panama, South Korea, England and Colorado.
“… perish the thought of a ‘B’ …”
When he knew he would have the opportunity to retire from the military, Mont’Ros decided the time had come to pursue his long-time love: creative writing. He enrolled in CLAS and plans to graduate in May 2014 with a major in Creative Writing.
Mont’Ros has thrown himself into campus life with enthusiasm and intensity. He carries a 3.96 grade point average (“I got three ‘A-minuses.’ Perish the thought of a ‘B!’”). He worked for New Student Orientation in the summer and serves as a mentor for other student veterans in the OVSS. Along with a core group of CLAS students, staff and faculty, he devoted countless hours to planning CU Denver’s 40th Anniversary celebration.
“… find commonalities and communicate …”
If Mont’Ros had failed to connect with fellow students at CU Denver, he would not blame the school.
“It’s the responsibility of the non-traditional student to develop relationships with traditional students,” he said. “We have had more life experience, so we should build the bridges, show respect, find commonalities and communicate.”
Mont’Ros praised the location of the university, describing the campus as “vibrant” and “awesome” because of its proximity to downtown Denver. After he graduates, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in writing.
“I have achieved more than I expected of myself,” he said. “I feel good about who I am, and I attribute the bulk of that to what I have learned at CU Denver.”