Veteran learns valuable lessons about life, himself, while earning social work degree in honors program at KU Edwards Campus
A U.S. Navy veteran with an inspiring journey back to higher education, 33-year-old Nate Eikmeier will graduate with a Bachelor of Social Work degree from KU this month. Originally from Aurora, Nebraska, Nate served nine years with the Navy. He deployed four times and then was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, before moving to the Kansas City area in 2016. When he returned, he began his college education at Johnson County Community College and became intrigued with the social work program. Once enrolled, he pushed himself to take advantage of the research opportunities available in the KU Edwards Campus Honors Program.
Eikmeier is a full-time student, making his home in Lenexa, Kansas, with partner Madison and 16-month-old daughter, Gracie. His family is enhanced by Beau, 15-year-old Cocker Spaniel, and Harley, a 10-year-old Cockapoo. Besides the KUEC Honors Program, Eikmeier is a member of the KUEC Veteran Service Network and participated in the Kansas Serves Substance Affected Families (KSSAF) Research Internship. He also volunteers at a Kansas City veterans center two days a week. He plans to pursue his master’s degree in social work from KU beginning in June.
Eikmeier’s journey has not always been easy. But his insight may give you advice and hope for the future.
Q: What has been a typical day in your life like as a student attending KUEC?
A: Prior to the stay-at-home order, I spent my weeks exhaustively chasing my daughter (still chasing!), who post-arrival has somehow managed to mold me into a person resembling a father. Outside of time with my daughter and senior level courses at KUEC, I was fortunate to have the privilege to spend two days a week at St. Michael’s Veterans Center in East Kansas City. St. Michael’s is a nonprofit organization that provides permanent supportive housing to former service members who have experienced chronic homelessness. St. Michael’s provided me a learning opportunity that went above and beyond anything I imagined (shout out to Cindy and Susan!).
Q: What makes you the happiest?
A: I find immeasurable amounts of joy in watching my daughter learn. Ironically, I constantly find myself wondering who is meant to teach who in our relationship. Madison and I have been intentional in avoiding “labeling” her with negative descriptive words. We describe her as “spirited,” which speaks to her being a busy, purposeful little girl who is constantly seeking new learning experiences. I love to learn, and there’s nothing more fulfilling than learning alongside her.
Q: What motivates you?
A: A lot! Each day is different for me, but if I were to name an underlying motivator to nearly everything I do, I’d have to mention the military personnel I served with who lost their lives. I carry a tragic and gripping feeling of wonder as to why I continue to be afforded opportunity and prosperity while they’re left as a memory.
Another critical piece of my past that motivates me is my history with substance use. I think people who suffer from addiction are often seen through the lens of having a moral deficiency, which is both unfortunate and counterproductive. I’ve thankfully established sobriety but continue to be perplexed with the mechanism that propelled me into sobriety while others, though much smarter and capable than I, continue to suffer from the cycle. I’m motivated to explore that mechanism further.
Q: Why did you choose KUEC?
A: I enrolled at Johnson County Community College after my service enlistment and had an open mind as to where I’d transfer afterward. During an Intro to Social Work class, [Associate Director for Academic Success] Jody Johnson came over and spoke with our class. I felt like he was straightforward, had my best interests in mind, and knew the curriculum well. I scheduled a meeting with Jody to discuss the program and for him to review my checkered transcripts. Despite the adversity that I had faced in my past and the barriers that I’d inevitably encounter as a non-traditional student, Jody provided constant support. He advocated on my behalf and educated me as to the trajectory necessary to enroll in the BSW program a year earlier than I thought possible. Without his help, guidance, and advocacy, I would not be writing this.
Q: How did KUEC meet your personal and/or academic needs?
A: I decided to take a risk and apply to the KUEC Honors Program halfway through my junior year. I felt a strong pull towards interdisciplinary studies and wanted to submerse myself into the research that was happening in the School of Social Welfare. Honors provided both. Dr. Shannon Portillo and Amy Sellers created and administered an honors program that met my academic interests, while also providing me an opportunity to develop strong relationships with faculty and professionals within my community. Being a part of KUEC Honors allowed me to take part in a research internship with a professor and researcher with the KU School of Social Welfare (shout out to Dr. Jody Brook!). The internship enhanced my core curriculum and gave me a front-row seat to witness the transformative research being done on KU campuses.
Q: How has your degree prepared you for the future?
A: (A) The School of Social Welfare has taught me that education is never-ending and that a large part of learning is about self-discovery. No matter how much I know about social work theory or evidence-based practice, I won’t be as efficacious as I can potentially be without having self-awareness. B) I’ve learned that human behavior is never as simple as I’d like to think. Attempts to reduce people to simple explanations are not helpful. C) As a result of my degree, I’ve developed strong relationships within the school, local community and social work profession.
Q: What was the most difficult part of earning your college degree and how did you overcome it?
A: As I’m sure most students do, I encountered several different adverse situations during my undergraduate experience. I’d love to attribute my having overcome that adversity to my internal fortitude and virtue, but that’d be a stretch of the truth. Maddie was the epitome of patience and understanding throughout my experience. She supported our household financially and provided a consistent, rational voice throughout my experience.
The BSW graduates from my KUEC cohort are a dynamic and powerful force of folks who are always sure to pick me up in times of need. No matter what I needed, when, or how, each person within the cohort was prepared to offer what they could. You name the situation, we supported each other through it.
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?
A: Putting forth the effort necessary to become a reliable member of my family.
Q: What is your favorite memory of your time at KUEC?
A: Our cohort was skilled at involving food with class. Whether it was pizza, banana bread (Anne!), pickles (Dani!), or salads (Shane!), we’d always manage to enjoy our learning experience as we ate and laughed. We’re as close to family as you can get.
Q: What are your long-term career goals and how do you plan to achieve them?
A: I start graduate school in June and plan to completely immerse myself in that experience. Immediately after graduation, I’m strongly considering a Master of Public Health. I’d like to learn more about disparate health outcomes in vulnerable veteran populations and how to create healthy environments conducive to their well-being.
Q: What advice would you give others who are thinking of earning a degree, whether a first-time bachelor’s, a second bachelor’s or a master’s?
A: Never sell yourself short. Don’t be afraid to pursue what interests you. Explore the minds of faculty. Ensure that the learning environment and teaching style is fitting to your personal learning style. Never feel inadequate or like you don’t belong; your presence at KUEC is all the evidence you need to speak to your potential to succeed. Communicate early and often. Advocate for equitable classrooms. Seek mentorship.