Veterans are receiving personal attention at Wilkes University with the appointment of Lt. Col. Mark Kaster as veterans’ counselor. Kaster assumed the new role in July. With the addition of the Yellow Ribbon or Post-9/11 veteran’s benefits, many returning GIs and their families are enrolling in college. Wilkes has experienced a significant increase in the number of veterans attending the university with more than 70 enrolled. Now students receiving benefits will receive counseling from a seasoned military veteran.
Kaster recently retired from his position as commander of the University’s Air Force ROTC program. In his new role, Kaster, a Mountain Top resident, will work with the Wilkes admissions office in recruiting veterans. Once veterans are admitted, he will provide benefits counseling and process benefit requests. He also will guide veterans to opportunities and resources available at the University. Kaster will spend part of his time as an instructor in the Earth and Environmental Science department at Wilkes, teaching a course in meteorology, among others.
Kaster, who spent 32 years in the military – 26 years commissioned in the Air Force, plus six years enlisted Army and Iowa Army National Guard – understands the challenges veterans and their families face. Prior to joining Wilkes, Kaster was weather officer for Gen. James Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), in Mons, Belgium. Jones is now national security advisor to President Barack Obama. In addition, Kaster spent three tours of duty in Germany.
When he ended his military career in June, he attended a five-day workshop to understand his own benefits. Helping others navigate the transition to civilian life and higher education will start with a conversation, he says.
“I usually like to start asking three questions: Where are you coming from? Where are you now? Where do you see yourself in three to five years?” Kaster explains. “Wilkes can be very helpful in answering that last question for a returning veteran. We can help them get where they want to go.”
Mentoring by faculty and staff is central to the student experience at Wilkes, making it ideal for veterans seeking a new direction, Kaster says. “It’s a very personalized atmosphere,” he says. “You are a person here, not a number.”
Kaster is familiar with communicating the strengths of the region and the University. During his four-year tenure as head of the ROTC program, enrollment in it grew from 25 to 75. He notes that he has first-hand experience as a Wilkes student: His daughters, Amanda and Abby, are both Wilkes undergraduates. His wife Tracy also is a student at the University and Kaster has taken courses there too.
Kaster also says that Wilkes-Barre offers an affordable location for veterans and their families. When researching opportunities for taking an ROTC command, he rejected opportunities in California, New York, and New Jersey in favor of northeast Pennsylvania, where the cost of living is reasonable and quality of life is good.