Veteran student gets help from New Start program on her rollercoaster journey to graduation

Loni at the CSU Stadium with her husband and two children

Story by Erica Billingsley

Military veteran Loni Graham-Ashby came to Colorado State University with a passion for natural resources and a determination to earn her bachelor’s degree. In spite of many challenges, she completed her degree in Fall Semester 2021 majoring in natural resources management with a minor in ecological restoration in the Warner College of Natural Resources.

In the Q and A below, Graham-Ashby shares how she went from academic probation to completing her degree, all while balancing school, work, and raising a family. She credits the New Start for Student Veterans program, part of the Center for Community Partnerships in CSU’s Department of Occupational Therapy, and other campus resources as key to helping her achieve her goal of graduation.

Tell us about yourself and why you chose CSU:

I’m originally from Redding, California. When I was in high school, I worked as a camp counselor at an environmental camp for 4th graders. At camp, I met a woman who was a Park Ranger and she inspired me to one day do this type of work. After high school I spent six years in the Navy and then returned home with the plan to do something in natural resources. I completed two associate’s degrees, one in sustainable agricultural practices and the other in natural resources, while also working and being a single mom. It was during this time that I met my husband. I knew that I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree in natural resources and CSU had one of the best programs for this field, so when I was accepted at CSU, my family and I decided to make the move to Colorado.

How would you describe your experience at CSU?

It’s been a rollercoaster. I came from a small town and there were only 15 people in my graduating class for my associate degree. Coming to CSU was a culture shock. I still remember one of my first classes was in a huge lecture hall that holds around 150 people and I could not believe how many people were in the class. At first, I just did not feel like I could be personable with any of the teachers or other students. But as I got into my core classes for my major, I started to see the same teachers and students in class and on field trips, so it started to feel better and more personal. I became more comfortable talking to my teachers in the Warner College as class sizes were smaller and I found all of my teachers to be very accommodating.

When you first met with the New Start program, it was Fall Semester 2019, and you were on Second Term Academic Probation. How did you manage to turn your academic performance around?

When I first came to the New Start for Student Veterans program, I was connected to nothing because I just didn’t know. There are a lot of resources on campus, and it can be hard to know which one pertains to you and which one to try. The New Start program, and the coordinator I’ve worked with, Stacey, has helped me a lot. She and the program have helped me navigate many things, things that it is just assumed that you already know. She helped me get connected to other resources, like the Student Disability Center, the AT room (through the Department of Occupational Therapy’s Assistive Technology Resource Center), Eagle Feather Tutoring, The Institute for Learning and Teaching, and the Adult Learner and Veteran Services office.

As I learned about the different resources out there, I learned to be able to advocate for myself. I started to feel better, to have more confidence. I learned to contact other offices and resources to find the ones that were most helpful for me.

How did you balance your many roles and responsibilities while completing your degree?

It was a lot to balance having a family, taking classes, working, and trying to just make everything fit together. To give an example, my husband was working the night shift for some time, and I would get up and take the kids to school. Then I would go home and walk to the bus station – because a parking pass at CSU is expensive – so I’d leave the car at home and take the bus to CSU for my classes. Some of my classes got out in the evening and so my kids rode the bus to the Boys and Girls Club after school, where they might have to stay until I could pick them up at 6 p.m. some nights. As soon as I got out of class, I’d take the bus home, get the car, and then pick up the kids.

I also fit in time to help with my kids’ Scouts program and helping with our church, as well as an internship with the Forest Service. Currently, I’m working a seasonal position with Larimer County up at Horsetooth Mountain Park. It has been a lot of rushing around, sometimes needing to push schoolwork to the backburner, and then playing catch-up.

What advice would you pass along to other students at CSU?

Learn about the programs out there and take advantage of them. If you need help, ask for it. There are plenty of people at CSU who want to help, you just have to find them. In the military we were taught to have an “adapt and overcome” mindset. When I was feeling anxiety being on such a big campus, it helped to remember that I have been through hard things before in my life and that this isn’t so bad.

What’s next?

I admit that it feels a little bit overwhelming to think about what’s next, but I have to remember all that I have been through and the lessons I’ve learned in the military and at CSU. I know I want to stay in this community where my family has established roots. I will likely start out by working seasonal positions where there are more opportunities in natural resources until I can apply for a full-time position, such as a ranger with the Forest Service.

The New Start for Veterans program is in the Center for Community Partnerships in the Department of Occupational Therapy, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.