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A sense of duty drives UOPX’s VP of Military and Veteran Affairs

The first time Army veteran Brian Ishmael saw the poignant Memorial Day flag display at University of Phoenix’s Phoenix Campus, he felt a sense of belonging.Ishmael had served two tours in Iraq during the Global War on Terrorism and decided to apply for a job at the University after his service ended. He worked at UOPX when some members of its military support team started the annual Memorial Day flag display to honor the sacrifice of fallen service members. Seeing the care the University showed to the military community would change the direction of his civilian career.

Now the vice president of UOPX’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs and Strategic Government Partnerships, Ishmael is focused on helping military service members, veterans and their families feel the same connection he did. Whether it’s helping students develop skills to succeed in a civilian career or helping faculty understand how to better serve the population, there’s nothing he would rather be doing.

“I’m in my dream job now,” Ishmael said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the work that the University does — not just for military students and veterans but for their families as well.”

A duty to serve

Ishmael was working at an Arizona hotel when the United States was attacked on 9/11. When his position was downsized, he contemplated his future. Like many other patriotic Americans, Ishmael felt the need to act and enlisted in the military, choosing the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Soon after arriving at his unit, he was sent to the Army’s Air Assault School, where he learned to conduct helicopter operations such as sling loading, rappelling and fast rope techniques. Two weeks after graduation, Ishmael was deployed to the Middle East.

When he returned home, Ishmael hoped to find a new professional civilian path. He took a job at UOPX in the finance department. At first, he was reluctant to let his life as a veteran intermingle with his work life. But seeing the flag display inspired him to pursue a volunteer opportunity with other veterans.

During the volunteer opportunity, Ishmael realized he had a passion for working with others who shared his military experiences. He decided to pursue more such opportunities.

So he began charting a new path, hoping to serve fellow military service members and their families in a leadership role. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and later a Master of Business Administration, climbing the ranks at the University. Four years ago, Ishmael took over leadership of the University’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs (OMVA).

Ishmael’s wife, Laura, is a senior manager in the University’s product management department. She said her husband is proudly and humbly fulfilling his ambition to serve others in a role he is passionate about.

“Brian sees the military community as a family, and he believes that we should be taking care of people,” she said. “That’s what he does every day.”

Helping military students succeed

Ishmael’s staff in OMVA all have military backgrounds and a similar dedication to providing a high-quality education to the University’s military students. Ishmael said an estimated 15% to 20% of UOPX students are connected to the military.

Under his leadership, OMVA has developed or enhanced a number of resources to provide holistic support that meet the specific needs of active-duty and veteran students, including caring for mental health, developing relationships in the community and helping students translate their unique experiences and skills to a career.

Offering a direct path to resources can help normalize help-seeking behavior and encourage students to use services that support their overall wellness. This can be accomplished through alliances with organizations looking to support military-affiliated students and their families, Ishmael said.

OMVA joined forces with nonprofit organizations to help. Give an Hour provides access to volunteer licensed mental health professionals, and American Corporate Partners matches participants with executives of large companies for a free, yearlong mentorship.

Veterans who are looking to connect with one another can be served through a dedicated resource center. This can help promote a sense of community for a population that often feels they don’t really fit in with other cohorts, Ishmael said.

“Veterans are very big on connectivity with other veterans in a community setting,” he said. “A physical space on campus reserved for active-duty and veteran students can allow for development of relationships based on commonalities.”

OMVA launched the University’s Veterans Resource Centers to provide online access to veteran-specific resources, as well as seven physical locations where veterans can connect and establish a sense of community.

One often-overlooked area related to veteran support is providing faculty and staff with an understanding of how to best meet the students’ needs. A number of issues can arise mid-course or mid-program that faculty may be unsure how to navigate, including active-duty deployment, Ishmael said. He recommends training be included as part of faculty and staff development, spearheaded by the school’s veteran affairs entity.

Ishmael said he believes that those who take on roles to support military-affiliated students are fueled by a sense of duty, as he is himself. The job provides a reward when he sees students he has worked with graduate and pursue their next career journey.

“It’s so impactful to watch them and see how proud they are,” Ishmael said. “It justifies all the work we’ve been doing when you see them earn that diploma.”