While Dan Pelzel ’18 and Mark Galetti ’18 found their niche and a sense of purpose at Valpo, they also encountered challenges along the way. But not long ago, they were faced with a much more arduous challenge — serving in the United States military.
Dan was active duty U.S. Army from October 2009 to January 2016 and was deployed multiple times to countries such as Afghanistan and Korea prior to retiring due to medical injuries. Mark, a U.S. Navy veteran, served two deployments to the Middle East from 2008 to 2013.
“Although their life experiences are very different than those of traditional college students, Dan and Mark have fit right in, and they’ve developed a large group of friends within the political science department,” says Amy Atchison, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and international relations. “I love having them and other veterans in my classes because they bring a lot to discussion about international relations; these are people who have lived the consequences of American foreign policy.”
When Mark looks back on his state of mind as he transitioned out of the military, he acknowledges being overcome with fear and demotivation. His job was gone, as were the paychecks and the insurance that came with it, and in their stead came the day-to-day struggles of a civilian and an unknown future.
“Coming to Valpo and seeing firsthand the drive and enthusiasm of the students motivated me,” Mark says. “I am amazed by everything my classmates do, such as internships in D.C. And I know if they can do it, then I can too. The experience has been almost therapeutic.”
Beyond their status as veterans, Dan, a political science major, and Mark, an international relations major, share a lot in common — natives of Northwest Indiana, first-generation students, and commuter, transfer students, not to mention their shared impact on their fellow students.
“Having Mark and Dan as friends and colleagues has been one of the best things to happen to me since I came to Valpo,” Brandon Hansen ’18, political science major, says. “They are always looking to better themselves, and that attitude radiates to the people who interact with them. Since I met them, they have encouraged me to be a better student and person.”
Mark transferred from Indiana University Northwest and came to Valpo due to its strong national reputation, which he only wishes he would’ve done sooner. Dan expresses the same sentiment, having previously attended the University of Arizona.
“Hands down, the best decision I ever made was coming to Valpo,” Dan says. “Growing up in Merrillville, I was aware of Valpo’s prestige, but never imagined I’d be accepted. That prestige combined with the political science program and general campus culture swayed me to come here.”
Valparaiso University’s commitment to the Yellow Ribbon Program also played a factor in the decision to transfer to Valpo, as enough funding was made available to cover tuition and fees once matched by Veterans Affairs. Its status as a Yellow Ribbon Program school is one way Valpo supports veteran students, a commitment recognized by Valpo’s designation as a 2016 Military Friendly School.
However, transitioning to Valpo was not without its challenges for the two veterans, who initially found it difficult to put themselves out there and share their status as veterans with the community. Dan and Mark revealed that, as veterans, they’re faced with a unique set of obstacles that the average person may not understand, and acclimating to a civilian lifestyle can be quite daunting. They were in need of the camaraderie, support, and understanding of a larger veteran community.
Thanks to a student-driven initiative both Dan and Mark took part in, Valpo is now home to an undergraduate chapter of the Student Veterans Association (SVA). Dan served as vice president of Valpo’s chapter and Mark as secretary. The SVA has been an invaluable outlet for both Dan and Mark, as it’s a place of comfort and support where they can interact with a network of veterans who come from similar backgrounds and understand a veteran’s stresses and mindset.
“With the addition of the SVA, Valpo means family,” Dan says. “I know at the end of the day, if I need anything, I could call anyone in the SVA, and they’d be there. And the same goes for my professors.”
Valpo’s chapter of the SVA seeks to improve veteran culture and understanding on campus and in the community and assist veterans to assimilate to a civilian lifestyle upon return from deployment. Still in its infancy, the SVA consists of between 10 and 12 members, representing all four branches of the military. Each member is a critical on-campus resource, offering a firsthand perspective to anyone looking to enlist.
Valpo’s SVA is dedicated to community outreach, persistent in their endeavor to assist wherever possible. They are currently developing ties to local charities and are focused on supporting new, military-friendly organizations to become vested in the community. Previously this academic year, the SVA supported local law enforcement by running in the K-9 5K.
“Coming from the military, we’re not selfish people,” Dan says. “I want everyone to succeed and to thrive. To be able to bring something to the community that can help even one veteran that’s struggling means everything to me.”
Similarly, at Valpo, the retention and success of each and every student is of utmost importance. Several initiatives are underway to continue to support active military and veteran students on campus, including smoother credit articulation processes and Green Zone training, which will provide the Valpo community with knowledge essential to strengthening their involvement with active military and veteran students.
Dan and Mark have found refuge and strength at Valpo, particularly in the political science department. They point to the intimacy of the program — small classroom environments and close student-faculty relationships — as the cornerstone of their Valpo experience.
“Valpo professors are amazing. They have a vested interest in your education and success, which I felt almost instantly,” Dan says. “All I had to say was I didn’t understand something, and the professors dropped whatever they were doing to pinpoint my misinterpretation.”
As veterans, Dan and Mark enter the classroom with unique experiences and viewpoints. They both express gratitude to their professors for allowing them to make real-world connections to the material being presented. But perhaps even more grateful are those Dan and Mark have come in contact with during their short time on campus.
“Mark and Dan’s life in the military gives them a different perspective on the world that most students don’t get to see. This maturity and real-world experience makes them valuable in the classroom as they give a different take on various subjects,” Brandon says. “I have enjoyed having them as colleagues. They have motivated me both inside and outside of the classroom, in both an educational and a personal setting.”
The connection Dan and Mark share is apparent even upon first meeting. The fact that they’re in the same degree field has enabled them to spend many an hour preparing for class and studying for exams together. They even engage in friendly competition, placing bets as to who will get the highest grade on a particular test. A recent bet found Mark sporting apparel of Dan’s choosing — a U.S. Army shirt.
But shortly, they will be parting ways. In a couple months, Dan will begin his studies at the Valparaiso University Graduate School, having been accepted into the international commerce and policy program, and Mark will return to the Navy.
“Looking to the future, I hope to exceed my own expectations,” Dan says. “Success for me is to be ahead of where I expect to see myself. I think Valpo will facilitate that for both of us.”