An Air Force Veteran’s Path from Teacher to SNHU Student to USO Center Operations Manager

Worlds collided for U.S. Air Force veteran Mike Shimkus at an Army National Guard Family Day in Chicago this summer. While there, Mike supported service members on behalf of USO Illinois and alongside Chris McCollor, the senior director of military partnerships for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), of which Mike is a graduate. Together, Mike and Chris handed out snacks and led activities to help these military families kick back and have a day of fun. And together, the USO and SNHU, our organization’s education partner, provided the people who serve and their military family members with a chance to connect with one another away from the hustle and bustle of military life.

It’s important for military families to spend time together, away from the stressors of military life. | Photo credit USO Photo

“These events are a chance for families to get away from it all and are a way to build a family bond,” Mike said. “Service members go through a lot, but families are just as important — especially families with younger kids who don’t understand when their moms or dads have to go away for a while or get deployed.”

These types of events boost the morale of service members and encourage their spouses as well, as they are able to see themselves as part of the larger military community. Military spouses can often feel isolated with the constant moves from one duty station to the next, away from their support networks of loved ones, so events like these give them a chance to build friendships.

“Military spouses can connect with each other when their loved ones are deployed, and they have a resource for information and advice about the challenges and stressors,” Mike said. “Family events strengthen the entire community.”

Mike was excited to be working with SNHU staff and volunteers. SNHU has partnered with the USO to support U.S. service members since 2016, and they have a long, rich history of serving the American military since 1941.

“When I heard about this opportunity to bring the USO and SNHU together to support this event, I jumped on it,” Mike said.

Mike attended SNHU following more than 22 years of Air Force service, earning a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

USO Center Operations Manager Mike Shimkus (left) with the Senior Director of Military Partnerships for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Chris McCollor (right) at an event for military families in Illinois. | Photo credit USO Photo

“As I was nearing retirement in 2011, I was stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts, so relatively close to the SNHU campus,” he said. “I was planning on staying in the New England area, close to my family. I went to an in-person orientation on campus, and it was beautiful. It was everything I expected.”

But then the unexpected happened, and that led him to becoming an online student, much like the many active-duty service members who earn their degrees from SNHU. He was offered a position in Phoenix, Arizona, as a high school teacher for the Air Force Junior ROTC, a four-year program that students can choose as an elective. Citizenship, structure and community involvement are key points of the program, so even if a student doesn’t pursue a military career, it is still beneficial to them, Mike explained.

Not only did Mike have the opportunity to positively influence his students as a veteran, but also as a fellow student.

“I used that as a teaching point in my lessons. They knew I was taking classes online. They saw me taking tests and writing papers. I told them that if I could do it now [as a mature learner], they could do it for sure,” Mike said. “But if life happens and you have to take another route, you can go to classes later in the day, or you can go online like I’m doing. They’d ask, ‘How’s school going?’ and I could ask them, ‘How’s it going for you?’ That was fun.”

Mike would go on to use the knowledge he gained from earning his sports management degree, working with a minor league baseball team in New Jersey.

But later, Mike discovered two promising opportunities to work for the USO, first as a USO Transition Specialist, assisting military community members with employment and education, and now as a USO Center Operations and Programs Manager.

“Giving back to the community that I served for so long seemed too good to be true, but it wasn’t too good to be true. It was just perfect.”

Mike appreciates how his degree from SNHU played a role in where he is today.

“I’d say it opened up a door to different and wonderful possibilities for me in my career,” he said.

Photo credit USO Photo

Through an online program through SNHU, Mike was able to set himself up for success. Today, he helps other service members and military family members do the same through his work at the USO.

He explained how the military is putting a stronger emphasis on education today, compared to when he entered the military in the late 1980s.

“You didn’t have to have a degree to promote up … now they’re really focused on education, and the more education you have, and the quality of education you have, sets you up for promotion. And looking at the military as a whole, when you separate or retire, you’ll have not only your job qualifications and your experience, but you’ll have that degree in hand as well.”

About the USO and SHNU Partnership

Throughout their partnership with the USO, SNHU has been a valuable resource in assisting the USO with providing educational opportunities to the men and women who serve, as well as their spouses, throughout the stages of their military journeys. From collaborating on events and programming at USO locations around the world, to offering academic guidance, financial literacy support and more, SNHU stands with the people who serve.

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