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Cal Poly Ranks as Best Campus for Veterans in the West — Thanks to Hard Work from Center for Military-Connected Students

A sign that reads 'Cal Poly Dean of Students Center for Military Connected Students'
Written By Jay Thompson // Photos by Joe Johnston

Cal Poly is a friendly campus — especially for its veterans.

U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges rankings honored the Learn by Doing university as the best campus in the Western U.S. for vets — a listing that shows the top-ranked schools that participate in federal initiatives helping veterans and active-duty service members pay for their degrees.

“It was the second year in a row, which is awesome for us,” added Kari Leslie of Cal Poly’s Center for Military-Connected Students. “We do a lot as a group to make sure we are building a strong community that is supportive of our military-affiliated students. It’s nice to see that reflected.”

Cal Poly’s strong rankings from publications like U.S. News and World Report has resulted in more veterans choosing to study here, Leslie said.

Four students sit wearing masks and using phones and computers in an office with photos of military personnel on the wall
Students utilize the Center for Military-Connected Students for space to study and support navigating resources for veterans and dependents.

“I think they look at those rankings,” she said of the 29 consecutive years Cal Poly has been lauded by the magazine as the Best in the West among public, master’s-level schools. “We are a military-friendly university. We are in the Veterans Affairs database as being a great institution with no complaints or issues.

“I think it’s the reputation of Cal Poly. We don’t go out and recruit students. They hear what a great school it is and come here.”

Computer engineering senior Tae Kim, who is concurrently serving in the Army Reserve, agrees.

“Cal Poly is a very veteran-friendly university,” the 32-year-old said. “I get reminded of it over and over whenever I talk to other soldiers in my unit. They are also going to college at different schools, but they do not have veteran-dependent dedicated offices. Therefore, they have to do their own paperwork and get very limited resources and support — if they can find any.”

Leslie says she sees the continuum of support for military-connected students throughout Cal Poly, from the Registrar’s Office, to Student Accounts to the President’s Office. She started working at the center in April of 2018, three years after it was dedicated as the Veterans Success Center.

The center was established to respect and honor veterans’ experience and service while providing support mechanisms that ease veterans’ transition into university life, but its purpose has evolved over the years. Many students who utilize the center may not be veterans themselves, but have a different type of connection to the military — leading to the decision to change the name to the Center for Military-Connected Students.

“We wanted to be reflective of the population we were really serving,” said Leslie, a military widow, of the center’s name change. “We wanted to be inclusive of the fact that a bigger number of our population is dependents. Some felt when they heard ‘Veterans Center,’ maybe they weren’t supposed to be here. That was not what we, as a group, wanted to say to them.”

Today, Leslie, Kim and some 20 other student assistants staff the center’s two facilities: the physical location in Building 52, open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and a virtual facility that takes queries 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Leslie says her assistants can answer questions “after hours and on weekends … when students are more likely to have them,” she said.

“Our Center for Military-Connected Students is a very friendly and welcoming environment for veterans and dependents,” said Kim, a Los Angeles transplant from South Korea, who hopes to graduate in June 2022.

For the nearly 700 veterans and dependents at Cal Poly, the center is just that: the hub for activities, benefits and social activities.

“We’re the place where you come and rest. The place that you come and meet people. The place where you study,” Leslie said.

“And it’s family. But it’s also where you get your pay, and work out your benefits. It’s the place you ask about advising, and the place you get tutoring and mentoring. This is the one-stop shop for everything that you’ll need at Cal Poly.”

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