Serving in the same Missouri Army National Guard unit with her mother and stepfather, Martina Meng was held to even higher standards than her peers and even the slightest misstep never got past her parents.
“The expectations on me were, I better be constantly moving,” Meng said. “I better be constantly working, and I better be constantly helping somebody, or else I’m not doing enough.”
Those high standards have served Meng well in her career, and now she’s applying those lessons in determination and leadership as the new manager of the Veterans Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Meng comes to the role after serving nearly 12 years in the National Guard as a soldier and working as the state tuition assistance manager for the Guard’s state headquarters. She has earned an associate degree in education from St. Charles Community College, a bachelor’s degree in music education from UMSL in 2019 and recently completed a master’s degree in higher education and leadership at Missouri Baptist University.
At the Veterans Center, she plans to use her experience in the military and training in education to make an impact for everyone on campus.
“I want to make a positive change for veterans,” Meng said. “I want to make their transition into the university as seamless as possible. It is critical to these students that we are all knowledgeable about veteran education benefits and how to maximize their military service and education into civilian education credits. I believe that education and the endeavor to seek knowledge should be easily obtainable for anyone who wants it.”
Meng’s own path to higher education began with the military, though she hadn’t anticipated that as a teenager. Having grown up with parents in the National Guard, she was adamant about not joining. However, she began to waver as high school graduation approached.
“My mother was a hard worker who immigrated from Nicaragua,” she said. “Ever since my sister and I were little girls, she stated how important our education is. She not only told us this but showed us by going to school and receiving her associate degree in nursing. I really wanted to go to college, as I would be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree, and I wasn’t wanting to put my parents through the stress of paying my tuition.”
The military was an opportunity to assist her financially with education. Meng intended to join the Missouri Air National Guard but when she showed up, the recruiters were out of office. So, she went next door and joined the Missouri Army National Guard at the age of 17.
The six-year contract required her parents’ signatures, which they readily provided, and Meng went on to complete basic training before her 18th birthday. National Guard service involves drilling one weekend a month and two weeks each summer for annual training.
“It gave me the flexibility to be a civilian and a soldier all at the same time, and I really liked that,” Meng said.
Initially, she served in her mother’s unit, which her stepfather later joined. Her mother was strict, adamantly avoiding preferential treatment, and at times, it felt like she was constantly under a microscope. Over time, she came to appreciate the experience and what she learned from her family.
“As I aspired to be a leader, she would always tell me, ‘You don’t earn rank to abuse, you earn rank to use it to lead others to the right path,’” Meng said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that the military helped me to understand about leadership. When I became a leader, it didn’t mean that I was getting more freedom. It meant I have more responsibilities to help people.”
Meng’s service provided funds to go to college, and she initially enrolled at Lindenwood University. It was a safe choice close to home in St. Charles, but due to tuition changes within the military, she transferred to St. Charles Community College. There she earned an associate degree in education before she enrolled in the music education program at UMSL in 2017.
“I eventually came to UMSL because when I was a high school student, I used to come here for the woodwind program that they had at the Touhill,” Meng said. “I used to think the Touhill was the most beautiful building that you could ever perform in. I was like, ‘I have to go to school here. This is where I need to perform.’”
A dedicated clarinetist, Meng chose to pursue music education since she had often studied under teachers who didn’t provide what she needed as a student, and she aimed to change that for others. Though at UMSL, she found plenty of supportive faculty members, including Associate Professor Gail Fleming, Associate Professor Zachary Cairns and Adjunct Lecturer Whitney Cairns to name a few.
Graduating from UMSL marked a new chapter in Meng’s career. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she realized that she wanted to be a changemaker at the collegiate level, which spurred her to pursue a master’s in higher education and leadership. A couple years later, she would have an opportunity to act on it thanks to the connections made as the state tuition assistance manager for the Missouri National Guard.
In that role, Meng processed about 700 applications per semester to make sure National Guard service members received their state tuition assistance. The position also took her to veterans centers and offices at 50 institutions throughout the state, including UMSL.
Meng knew the Veterans Center was doing an excellent job certifying benefits and that the university had been routinely recognized by the Military Times for its commitment to military-connected students. Still, she felt there was room for the Veterans Center to grow – a challenge she wanted to tackle personally.
“We are doing really good work for the size of our student veteran population” she said. “But I want to grow and that means being competitive with other universities. I want to make UMSL and the Veterans Center the first stop for veterans looking to attend college and use their education benefits. I want UMSL to be the first choice in the St. Louis area.”
To that end, Meng’s primary focus will be increasing the visibility of the Veterans Center on campus. As an UMSL student, she found that many people weren’t aware of the center or its location in Clark Hall. In working toward that goal, Meng anticipates scheduling more outreach events and increasing collaboration with other departments. She would even like to institute a quarterly “service member spotlight.”
“We have veterans all over this campus, and you wouldn’t even know that they were a veteran unless they brought it up,” she said. “I feel that UMSL has a strong team not only in the Veterans Center but throughout the university. I want to lean on the other faculty and staff members here to really incorporate their experiences and expertise for further veteran success.”
Ultimately, Meng wants to create a comfortable environment at the Veterans Center where military-connected students have everything they need at their disposal, whether that means a study space or a place to bond over shared experiences. Meng said that might mean a bigger space at some point, but that will become clearer in time.
What’s evident already is the Veterans Center’s bright future.
“I do really love the community that I’ve gotten to engage with here,” she said. “Everyone has been so supportive and helpful. I really do think that the Veterans Center, while we’re in a good place, I think we’re only going to get better.”