Life After Service
Pepperdine student veterans thrive as scholars and ambassadors through the support of the Pepperdine Veterans Council as they pursue degrees following their military service
The United States is currently home to around 16.5 million veterans—approximately 6.4 percent of the country’s adult population, according to 2021 Census data. And while military members develop a variety of desirable skills during their time in uniform, transitioning back to civilian life poses numerous challenges, including job uncertainty. Following their return from service, many military veterans are now opting to complete or advance their education. With the help of tailored programs and resources available at universities like Pepperdine, student veterans are offered greater opportunities to find community and the determination to pursue a degree.
"Pepperdine’s faith-based approach to education has been invaluable to my development as a leader. I have noticed a common thread that every professor cares about the quality of leader you become."
Programs such as the Pepperdine Veterans (PeppVet) Council, a leadership committee created by student veterans representing all five Pepperdine schools, and the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program (Yellow Ribbon Program), offering tuition support to eligible students, help to ensure student veterans feel valued, included, and supported throughout their academic journey. Ranked 27 among national universities according to the 2022–2023 U.S. News & World Report rankings for the best colleges for veterans, Pepperdine has developed an exceptional reputation for helping military members and attracts students from all over the country.
This April, three Pepperdine student veterans—Samantha Jones (’21), an alumna and current JD/MBA candidate attending Caruso School of Law and Graziadio Business School, Brandon Olson, a current Seaver College student, and Stephen Shields (MPP ’23), a recent graduate from the School of Public Policy—were featured on Military Makeover's Special Edition: “Operation Career” hosted by Montel Williams, a television show on the Lifetime network that shares the stories of military veterans from around the country who are transitioning back to civilian life. Throughout the episode, Jones, Olson, and Shields discussed their military backgrounds and why Pepperdine stood out as a safe haven for veterans looking to immerse themselves back into society.
Jones, who served eight years in the Navy as an aviation electrician working on H60 Romeo helicopters, was drawn to the University’s emphasis on developing students’ leadership skills on a Christian foundation, which played a significant role in her decision to return to Pepperdine for a JD/MBA degree following her undergraduate education. “Pepperdine’s faith-based approach to education has been invaluable to my development as a leader,” says Jones. “After having the opportunity to study at three of Pepperdine’s schools—Seaver College, Graziadio Business School, and Caruso School of Law—I have noticed a common thread that every professor cares about the quality of leader you become. Even at the undergraduate level, Pepperdine professors challenge students to weigh the broader implications of their decisions.”
For Olson, who served as an army paratrooper for more than three years and was deployed to countries such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, Pepperdine felt like an opportunity for self-discovery and to reconnect with his faith. “I was in a period of my life where I was searching for God,” he shares. “I was also researching universities that were known for supporting student veterans, and Pepperdine’s integration of faith and learning made the decision to attend an easy choice.”
“I was in a period of my life where I was searching for God. I was also researching universities that were known for supporting student veterans, and Pepperdine’s integration of faith and learning made the decision to attend an easy choice.”
Shields, who served in the army as an airborne ranger in the 75th Ranger Regiment with five deployments in Afghanistan, attended Pepperdine for the opportunity to find community and learn from dedicated professors committed to challenging and developing their students. “I chose to attend Pepperdine because of the supportive environment, balanced curriculum where all viewpoints are respected, and the University’s dedication to preparing students to make positive contributions to America’s future,” he says.
While many are drawn to Pepperdine for the nurturing atmosphere and opportunities extended to military veterans, each person’s journey from enlistment to homecoming is unique.
Growing up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, Jones’ interest in the military developed at an early age. Her father served in the navy, and his passion for service and travel inspired her as she considered her future professional pursuits. “Hearing my father’s stories about all the places he traveled, as well as his passion for serving his country, inspired me to seek out my own opportunities with the military,” Jones adds. “The educational benefits and unique life experiences that came along with service were opportunities I could not pass up.”
Following eight years of service, Jones found herself at a crossroads—with two young children and a husband that was in active duty, she began to reflect on what she imagined the next phase of her career to be. As a former Pepperdine student, Jones knew that the University offered a variety of opportunities for veterans that would allow her to continue to advance her leadership skills and be immersed in a supportive community. Jones is currently a first-year law student at Caruso Law and credits the PeppVet Council for connecting her with current veteran law students who guided her through the Law School application process and offered her valuable advice. Jones continues to be an active member of the veteran community and hopes to work in corporate or securities law following graduation to develop programs that help veterans and their families learn about investing.
Though not inspired by a military upbringing, Olson enlisted for the opportunity to test his limits and experience the world. “I had a desire to test myself and ultimately wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than myself,” Olson shares. He describes his experience in the military as “challenging, but a great unifier with my fellow service members and an opportunity that expanded my skills beyond what I ever believed was possible.”
“I chose to attend Pepperdine because of the supportive environment, balanced curriculum where all viewpoints are respected, and the University’s dedication to preparing students to make positive contributions to America’s future."
While the military provided Olson with an undeniable learning experience, he felt ready to move on and discover his identity outside of the service. “Everybody has different stories,” he says. “There's the military career and then the chapters that follow when you get out. The real challenge is discovering who you are after leaving a system that has your every moment scheduled—that tells you when to eat, sleep, show up—and now you're just on your own.”
Olson is currently the president of the PeppVet Council and spends his time helping other student veterans find their place and community at Pepperdine. “As president, I ensure my presence is a representation of the overall program and help the University’s student veterans understand the opportunities available to them,” says Olson. “I act as a liaison for anyone looking for help or direction and—just as it did for me—I am proud the PeppVet Council can offer community to those needing a place to connect.”
Born in Austin, Texas, Shields felt a calling to join the military after witnessing one of the most devastating attacks in modern US history. “After the events on 9/11, I felt called to serve,” says Shields. “The opportunity to serve as an army ranger was an invaluable experience that gave me the chance to defend America’s national security interests and test myself in ways that I could never have been possible in the civilian world.”
After fulfilling his six-year enlistment contract, Shields was prepared to apply his new leadership skills back home and get a degree that would allow him to continue to positively impact society. Also a member of the PeppVet Council, Shields describes Pepperdine’s veteran support services as “going above and beyond in supporting student veterans and key advocates for veterans trying to navigate their lives as students.” As a recent Pepperdine graduate with a master of public policy degree, Shields plans to attend law school with the long-term goal of becoming a federal judge.
Student veterans such as Jones, Olson, and Shields continue to utilize their leadership skills and passion for service to help not only their veteran community, but society as a whole. Their tireless efforts to protect and serve have only reached greater heights following their departure from the military as they pursue an education that will allow them to positively impact the world around them.