AUGUSTA – It was a roadside sign that first attracted Ramon Nunez’s attention to the University of Maine at Augusta.

“I had always driven by and seen the sign: ‘Welcome veterans,’” said Nunez, 56, an Augusta resident who served for 25 years in the Navy.

A lot of universities claim to welcome and support veterans, Nunez said, but he felt something different at UMA.

When he first visited the campus last year, he spent more than half an hour talking with Amy Line, the coordinator of veteran support services, who discussed his options with him, took him to see the veterans lounge and introduced him to some peer mentors.

Nunez immediately decided to enroll and began classes in January.

“It’s not just words, it’s deeds that veterans get out here,” he said. “Of any place that I could go, this offered the best place for me to do well.”

Stories such as Nunez’s back up the university’s recent designation by Military Jobs Magazine as a Military Friendly School, one of nine in the state.

UMA earned the recognition for the academic credits and financial benefits it offers veterans; having a significant number of military-affiliated students, and the support available to military students, both in administration and social outlets.

UMA has 286 students this fall who are certified to receive veterans benefits, about 6 percent of the student population.

The number of certified veterans enrolled has risen 37 percent since fall 2008, according to figures provided by Jonathan Henry, the dean of enrollment services, who is co-chairman of UMA’s Military and Veteran Affairs Advisory Council.

The council began in 2008 as a task force, and last year became permanent. It’s similar to a body that existed at the school in its early years during the Vietnam War.

“All these veterans were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we didn’t have an organized response to support veterans,” Henry said.

The council helped guide use of a two-year, $100,000 grant that UMA received in 2009 from the American Council on Education and the Walmart Foundation. UMA was the only school in New England to receive the grant, and one of 20 nationwide. It paid for:

Forming the school’s Military Achievement Project, which has staff dedicated to support veterans.

Creation of veterans lounges at the Augusta and Bangor campuses.

New online course offerings.

Visits by a Veterans Affairs Mobile Vet Center, which travels the state and helps veterans understand their benefits.

The grant money ran out this summer, but UMA is keeping the programs and staff in place, Line said.

The veterans lounges have touch-screen computers to accommodate veterans with disabilities, and are set up so veterans don’t have to sit with their backs to the door, which makes some of them uncomfortable, Line said.

“All the literature says the military has its own culture and own language,” she said.

“You don’t know who your veterans are on campus because they all look the same,” Line said. “But you can tell once they go in the lounge, just by the way they’re talking to each other.”

Line, who also teaches classes in mental health and human services, is a veteran herself. She served in the Navy from 1977 to 1997, then attended UMA.

“There’s more structure than there was when I was a student,” she said. “There’s a single point of entry when veterans come in, which is me.”

Henry said UMA is always reaching out to veterans, but some are intimidated by the prospect of college — especially if they have never attended before. He tries to help them realize that they already have the skills that they need for college.

“They have the discipline, they have the staying power and they also have the notion of getting the mission done,” he said. “They succeed, swimmingly.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

[email protected]