Three years ago, if you had told Jason Coles that he would carry a 3.6 grade-point average at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and earn an Outstanding Adult Student award, he would have been skeptical. After five years of active duty in the U.S. Army, 3 ½ years of service in the Army Reserve, and several years working as a vocational training supervisor at the Lad Lake facility in Dousman, Wisconsin, for at-risk youths, the subject of education had weighed heavily on his mind.
“College wasn’t part of my plan because the Army was going to be my career,” he said. “But with a medical discharge and three girls at home, I had to adjust. I wanted to provide the best life possible for my wife and kids. Job security was part of that, and so was a college diploma. I also have federal and Wisconsin GI Bill benefits available, and it was eating me up that I should use them.”
Despite this powerful motivation, the idea of going to college after being out of school for 13 years was daunting.
“I struggled in high school, and I was concerned that I couldn’t handle college — especially math. I didn’t think an online program would be right for me, so I looked at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater because it was close to home.”
Jason first enrolled as a history education major at UW-Whitewater, but a friend persuaded him to consider occupational safety. The prospect of protecting people in the workplace was appealing, as was the structure of policies, procedures and enforcement.
“I thought it would be more black-and-white,” he admitted. “But I learned that you are ultimately working with people. You have to be persuasive and can’t be absolutely rigid.”
Jason started the program full time in 2017 and is on pace to graduate next May. The experience has been full of challenges and rewards.
“Math and science have been difficult,” he said. “I took advantage of the (free) tutoring services on campus, which were fantastic. I also appreciated the strong community of other veterans and adult students.”
“I’ve had to be strategic about organizing my time,” he added. “I schedule huge gaps in between my classes so I can study and do homework on campus. With three girls at home — ages three, four and twelve — I know it won’t happen there. As it is, a lot of household chores have been ignored over the last couple of years. But it’s been incredibly satisfying to put in the time and see my hard work pay off.”
Both his military discipline and intrinsic motivation have undoubtedly played a role in his success.
On Nov. 7, Coles was one of five Warhawks — one of two in the College of Business and Economics — to receive an Outstanding Adult Student award. With 815 nontraditional students (over the age of 25) enrolled as undergraduates, they are a significant part of the campus community. The university celebrates National Nontraditional Student Week each year in recognition of how hard students work to balance school, career and family obligations.
Todd Loushine, associate professor of occupational and environmental safety and health, nominated Coles for the Outstanding Adult Student award.
“I have had the privilege of working with many adult students with military backgrounds,” he said. “I find that they work hard, ask tough questions in lectures and office hours, and take on the mantle of role model to help guide traditional students. Jason is a dream student. He asks for more information, attends office hours to ensure he is progressing toward objectives and contributes to class discussions with both content and life experiences.”
Coles currently has an internship position in heavy manufacturing at Komatsu Mining in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and plans to complete his capstone internship there. After graduating and starting his career, he intends to enroll in the Master of Science in Environmental Safety and Health program to position himself for leadership positions.
With other adult students in mind, he offered some succinct advice.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “I know that I wanted to at times, but just stick with it.”
He also advocated the occupational safety major.
“There is a strong demand for qualified professionals. When I was applying for an internship, I received several offers and was recruited aggressively. The money is excellent, and it’s the kind of job that you can feel good about.”
Most importantly, he felt he would be able to provide a good future for his family.
“They are the motivation for everything I do, and being in the safety field has affected how I protect my family at home.”
UW-Whitewater has nearly 300 veterans enrolled in programs on campus — 112 of whom are nontraditional students over the age of 25. The Adult Student Outreach office provides specialized services to help encourage and support adult students. The university also offers exceptional support to military and veteran students. Once again, for 2020, UW-Whitewater was ranked in the top five percent of universities nationwide for veterans.