LAWRENCE — For 20 years, the University of Kansas TRIO Veterans Upward Bound program has served veterans in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Outgoing director Julia O'Dell can still recall what she told staffers at their first meeting in 1999.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Every single time you talk to a veteran, I want you to have a smile on your face; I want you to be happy to be talking with them,’” she said. "I think it makes a positive difference on how vets perceive us.”
Housed within the KU Center for Educational Opportunity Programs (CEOP) and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, VUB is one of nine federally funded TRIO programs. The KU VUB program outreach includes Douglas, Leavenworth, and Wyandotte counties in Kansas and Jackson, Cass, and Clay counties in Missouri.
For two decades, staffers have offered advising, counseling and expertise to help eligible veterans figure out their personal path to success, whether at a two-year community college, a four-year college or university, or a vocational or technical school. All services, including instruction, textbooks, tutoring, advising and supplies, are provided to eligible veterans free of charge.
“The services we provide enable our veterans to make some solid consumer decisions as to what education can help them accomplish and where they might go to school, and then helping them with the rigmarole of getting into college,” O’Dell said. “We’re funded to serve 125 veterans over the course of the year. We look for veterans who didn’t come from families where college was the assumed course.”
Over the course of her career, O’Dell has developed a deep understanding and knowledge of the VUB program, including the federal regulations governing the grant-funded program set forth by the Department of Education. Under her leadership, the program has been able to develop an exemplar model of best practices, and college access professionals across the country turn to O’Dell for guidance and expertise.
O’Dell is a past president of the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound (NAVUB) and has provided years of service to the NAVUB as an active member of the board of directors. These contributions have not gone unnoticed by the community. In 2011, NAVUB bestowed O’Dell with the Eagle Award, the highest award from NAVUB, and in 2019, the association recognized her with a Lifetime Service Award.
Ngondi Kamatuka, director of the Achievement and Assessment Institute’s Center for Educational Opportunity Programs, recognizes the instrumental role O’Dell’s leadership played in the success of serving veterans across the Kansas City metropolitan area. “There is not a single service agency that has not been contacted by Julia. She has built long-lasting partnerships with many agencies in the Greater Kansas City area to better serve our veterans. She has crossed the Missouri River many times to reach out to veterans.”
Reflecting on her time at KU, O’Dell said, “Every day I am grateful that I am able to help veterans with their educational journey. As a military spouse, I have always deeply appreciated the work done by the men and women of the U.S. military. Working with veterans each day is just a small way to help pay them back for their service to our nation.”
O’Dell retired from KU on May 31, and David Strange has become the program's second director in its 20-year history.
“It is a tremendous honor to serve the veterans in and around the Greater Kansas City area community as they pursue their goals in higher education and post-military careers … My goal is to build on Julia O’Dell’s legacy of the past two decades and expand the program to reach and serve more post-9/11 generation veterans while continuing to serve veterans of all eras,” he said.
Strange is a recently retired, fourth-generation U.S. Army infantry officer with multiple overseas deployments, including to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Having received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kansas State University, he said is proud to call Kansas home and is looking forward to being a part of the KU CEOP team.
As Strange moves into his new role, he acknowledges the strong foundation that O’Dell created throughout her career.
“Julia has done such an incredible job launching this program and leading it to be one of the top VUB programs out of more than 60 VUB programs nationwide,” Strange said.
About the Center for Educational Opportunity Programs (CEOP):
Housed within the KU Achievement & Assessment Institute (AAI) the mission of the Center for Educational Opportunity Programs is to build a legacy of learners and leaders through a commitment to educational equity. The center houses college access and support programs including TRIO, GEAR UP, CAMP, and STEP UP along with a student scholarship program and a Research, Evaluation & Dissemination team. CEOP addresses educational inequality by breaking down barriers faced by low-income and first-generation college students. These barriers to higher education are confronted by programs that provide academic, financial, and cultural support to over 9,000 people across seven counties.