When service members separate or retire from the military, more than 45,000 nonprofits, thousands of public agencies, and countless other organizations and individuals aim to support their transitions back to civilian life. This series explores how communities across the country are collaborating across public, private, business, and social sectors to better connect the systems that serve veterans, by leveraging the principles of “collective impact.” The subjects featured are all members of National Veterans Intermediary (NVI) Local Partner collaboratives.
Camden Ege was just out of high school when he enlisted in the Air Force in 2007, but college was still on his mind. He was on active duty when he earned an associate degree in education and then applied to the University of Southern Maine.
Ege thought he was being proactive until his brother, who serves in Maine’s National Guard, began peppering him with questions: Had he applied for GI Bill benefits? Had he filled out his Free Application for Federal Student Aid?
“I thought, ‘How has no one told me any of this?’” recalled Ege. He felt lucky to have his brother guide him through the process, but he knew not everyone has that advantage. “Others don’t necessarily know how to access resources or even that they need to,” he said.
In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs studied student veterans’ perceived barriers to achieving academic goals. The research highlighted the need for a system that better explains the GI Bill and other school-related policies to service members before they enroll in an education program. The study also recommended offering ongoing, accessible support to veterans throughout their academic career.
Ege had also realized the importance of supporting vets who pursue higher education, so he established the USM chapter of Student Veterans of America. He also helped expand the university’s Green Zone program, which coaches faculty members on understanding the unique challenges student veterans face. Once he graduated, Ege took a job with USM’s Veterans Services.
It was through his on-the-ground experience helping veterans access education resources that Ege began to realize how fragmented the current system is. There are numerous nonprofits that work to enroll veterans in college, of course, but these groups often operate in a vacuum. Instead of collaborating toward a common goal, the organizations are competing to create the greatest independent impact.
As the State’s approving official for the Maine GI Bill, Ege is now in a position to do things differently. In his role, he evaluates and approves education programs, including on-the-job training and apprenticeships, that military members can access through the GI Bill. “What excites me is making a veteran’s dream come true,” he said.
These days Ege is more dedicated than ever to increasing veteran accessibility to education — and he’s thinking about how to do so holistically through a model known as “collective impact.” It’s a collaborative approach that gives those with similar end goals a blueprint for how to come together in an effort to work smarter and more effectively.
Ege is a co-chair of the Maine Military and Community Network (MMCN), which convenes community stakeholders to discuss issues impacting their work and figure out how they can share resources in order to overcome the challenges they all face. Each stakeholder brings their own unique expertise to the table, which helps everyone align on a set of common goals in a supportive environment that energizes the group to keep collectively working towards helping ease the transition from military to civilian life for local veterans.
One of ten MMCN chapters in Maine, this network of local organizations includes a VA medical center; a community-based counseling center; outpatient clinics; the state chapter of Easterseals; and Boots2Roots, a Maine nonprofit focused on connecting with soon-to-be-veterans before they transition back to civilian life. These groups, and others, have developed a shared understanding of the problem and have committed to solving it together by sharing resources, data and knowledge.
Connection is key, Ege said, “so that we’re all on the same page about how we can address the needs of our veterans’ community. When a provider is committed enough to stay active in our collaboration, that speaks volumes as to how reliable they’ll be when we refer a veteran to them.”
And when veterans get frustrated because there’s not a clear solution to their problem, “having a point person is huge,” said Ege.
“I can’t help solve every problem,” he admitted. “But I can be one dedicated person to answer their questions and help them find the right people to talk to.”
Ege feels confident that, over time, the collective-impact approach he’s championed will make a significant difference in the educational outcomes for Maine’s veterans. And though not in his official job description, Ege, too, is dedicated to helping veterans reintegrate back to civilian life, stepping in when he needs to as a friend, an ombudsman or a counselor.
“The idea has always been to make sure all of a student veteran’s basic needs are met so that they can focus on their coursework,” Ege said. “Ultimately, helping veterans is all that matters at the end of the day.”
This article was produced in partnership with NVI. NVI’s Local Partner network is the nation’s largest, most diverse, and most inclusive network of communities committed to the successful integration of veterans and military families. Learn more about NVI here.