Rutgers University in Camden alumna Tina Mikes’s work on behalf of fellow veterans is not a job so much as a calling. As a field supervisor for the nonprofit Soldier On, Mikes connects veterans who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness with housing and health care resources. The Burlington County resident, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work at Rutgers–Camden, extracts joy from helping those with whom she has an unspoken connection.
“With us veterans, there’s an understanding that we have with other veterans,” Mikes said as she accepted the first-ever Excellence Award at Rutgers–Camden’s Veterans Day Observance event this fall. “We have that bond. It's just something special.”
Mikes’s journey to Rutgers–Camden is even more remarkable considering she dropped out of high school in 10th grade. She earned her GED in order to enlist in the United States Army at 20 years old. She was stationed in Korea and Germany as a signal system support specialist, assisting with communication equipment such as satellites, tactical radio, and local access network lines so that troops could stay informed in the field.
After three years of service, Mikes returned home. She earned an associate degree in education but realized she no longer wanted to pursue a teaching career. She enrolled in the social work program at Rutgers–Camden because of its proximity and reputation. “The only school I applied to was Rutgers,” Mikes said.
“Tina embodies the incredible contributions made by student veterans at Rutgers–Camden,” said Rutgers–Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis. “She demonstrated personal fortitude in pursuing higher education after her military career, and I am delighted that her degrees have allowed her to further her commitment to helping her fellow veterans.”
On campus, Mikes served as secretary of the organization Student Veterans at Rutgers–Camden, where she coordinated trips to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Community Living Center in Philadelphia and raised money for the university’s Jeremy Kane and Joshua Piccoli Memorial Scholarships. “I met a lot of people there who are still friends to this day, it's a great group of people,” said Mikes, who counted Piccoli among her closest friends.
Mikes also worked in the Office of Military and Veteran Affairs under the direction of Fred Davis, a United States Navy veteran. It was there that Mikes first learned about Soldier On. She recalled that a student named Jose had walked into the office, where Davis spoke with him about Rutgers–Camden services and campus activities. When Mikes heard Jose speak about his position at Soldier On, she had to know more.
“I literally chased him down the hallway,” Mikes said. “I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and he said, ‘Actually, we are hiring.’” Mikes interviewed and was later offered a role at Soldier On, where she has worked ever since.
Mikes manages intake hotline staff and health care navigators who support veterans in the four states where Soldier On operates: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. “I could be getting them enrolled in VA health care, helping them find a primary care doctor, or helping them get home healthy,” Mikes said.
Mikes pursued her master’s degree in social work while working full time and raising two small children who were actively involved in sports activities. A single mom, she pointed to a “huge support system” within the university that helped her then and continues to do so.
“Rediscovering that camaraderie you used to have in the military through a veteran group on campus really is invaluable,” Mikes said. “It includes friends that I met along the way in the Veterans Affairs office. It includes Fred Davis, my biggest cheerleader and supporter in life.”
Mikes doesn’t see any reason why she would leave Soldier On. The alumna is now a proud mother of a United States Navy officer and enjoys her work more than ever.
“When you hear somebody say they really appreciate everything you've done for them or they don't know how they would have done it without you—I wouldn't change it for anything,” Mikes said.