By Tim Morgan
Shane Hale looks like any other staff member on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. He’s well groomed, dresses in business casual and has a calm demeanor. He can be identified, however, by his camouflage Tar Heel cap, an accessory he wears almost everyday, representing his love and appreciation for UNC-CH and its student veterans.
While he may look like your average employee, Hale is anything but ordinary, and his achievements over the last decade at UNC-CH prove that.
Setting his sights on Chapel Hill
Originally from Oxford, Mississippi, Hale grew up in a household with little money. He realized early on that academics are important, and he wanted to be the first in his family to graduate college.
Hale was quickly drawn to the university after first hearing about the campus from a friend and UNC-CH graduate. He received an undergraduate bulletin in the mail, now referred to as the undergraduate catalog, and read it cover to cover.
“I fell in love with its mission, the diversity, the classes, all the different majors,” Hale said. “I could tell immediately that UNC-CH was the place for me.”
But there was a problem standing in his way: Hale couldn’t afford college.
“I was ignorant about things like financial aid or how all that worked,” Hale said. “I just knew that I’m poor and I need a way to pay for college.”
With UNC-CH in the back of his mind, Hale enlisted in the U.S. Army.
From front lines to campus grounds
Hale started his first day of basic training during the early hours of September 11, 2001.
“I joined in peacetime, and my mindset immediately changed on that day. It became real,” Hale said. “This isn’t a passive thing anymore to get money for college. This is wartime, which wasn’t what I was expecting, but I was ready; really the whole country was.”
Hale served in the Army for five and a half years, deploying twice to Iraq. The entirety of the experience was transformational for him.
“The amount of growth and maturing that took place throughout that time was impressive,” Hale said. “Personality, world outlook, everything changed for the better.”
When his service was complete, Hale continued onward toward the place that occupied his mind all along: UNC-CH. But he’d need to make another pit stop along the way.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be super competitive, so I decided to start out at community college, really take it serious and then try to get accepted as a transfer.”
That move paid off, as Hale was accepted to UNC-CH in 2009.
The reality of Hale’s college experience, however, was different from the life he had thought up in his head. The transition from serving in the military to receiving a higher education proved to be more difficult than he could’ve imagined, and that’s when Hale found himself in an identity crisis.
“The military really gave me a purpose that I didn’t have, and to lose that was hard,” Hale said. “I was looking for that new purpose and felt isolated being the ‘creepy old guy’ in class. The Iraq War wasn’t all that popular either, so on campus, if students found out you were a veteran, you could sometimes be the target of microaggressions. It was hard to fit in. I think I only knew one other veteran on campus.”
Ironically, Hale’s undergraduate experience as a veteran led him to a new purpose: helping other veterans navigate higher education and feel connected to the community at UNC-CH.
Improving the landscape for veterans
After graduating in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology, Hale worked as a purchasing assistant at Davis Library. During this time, he found another job at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, primarily working with transfer students.
“I really loved helping students from diverse backgrounds coming from community college, and that’s what really jumpstarted me to where I am now.”
While working in these positions, Hale was also becoming a community leader for veterans at UNC-CH.
He helped establish the Carolina Veterans Organization, a student-run organization that aims to provide veterans and military-affiliated students with resources and support to help them navigate their transition into higher education.
One of his most recognizable impacts at UNC-CH is the role he played in creating the Carolina Veterans Resource Center on South Campus. The center, which officially opened in September of 2017, is a space built solely for veterans to connect and spend their time. Now, Hale is a program coordinator at the center.
Arguably, Hale’s true legacy lies in the establishment of the “Boot Print to Heel Print” program. At zero cost to the student, this year-long program seeks to acclimatize veterans to the campus and other opportunities at UNC-CH, while providing tools, assistance and events for new student veterans to maximize their potential at the university and in the workforce.
“I don’t want veterans coming here to have to go through what I went through,” Hale said. “It’s a difficult process and veterans have unique needs, so anything we can do to help them out is just going to increase their likelihood of succeeding while they’re here.”
Almost all of UNC-CH’s approximately 400 undergraduate veterans have interacted with Hale at some point in their career at UNC-CH. Although Hale may be too humble to admit it, he has become the epicenter for all things veteran-related on campus, and many students credit him for their success.
“Shane has often been the first smiling face that people considering Carolina see, and the last congratulatory face when a student graduates,” said Shane O’Neill, a U.S. Army veteran and UNC-CH School of Law graduate. “I am hard pressed to consider that there is someone out there who is more passionate about Carolina, student veterans and supporting people than Shane Hale.”
Eric Crawford, an Army Special Forces Veteran and pre-med student, is also grateful for Hale’s commitment to helping guide student veterans.
“He helped me out every step of the way since I’ve been at UNC-CH,” Crawford said. “He is always willing to take the time to help out veterans, day or night. My son is actually a huge UNC fan now as Shane helped get him some free tickets to one of the football games. Shane is beyond an advocate.”
Jonathan Waddell, an Air Force veteran and journalism student, credits Hale as one of his reasons for not dropping out.
“I was having issues during one of my semesters due to some post-traumatic stress relapses and was overwhelmed,” Waddell said. “I reached out to Shane and that same day he was able to help me get a medical waiver for one of my classes and also helped me push through that semester. If it wasn’t for him, I likely would’ve dropped out.”
Unfortunately for current students, the grant which facilitated Hale’s title as program coordinator for the Carolina Veterans Resource Center has not been renewed, meaning that Hale’s role is coming to an end this semester.
“I knew coming into this position that it was going to be a limited time,” Hale said. “I began working on a master’s degree with hopes that something would open up, but the stars just didn’t align.”
Hale hopes to take what he has done at UNC-CH and implement similar programs in universities that lack resources for veteran students.
“I love UNC-CH, but what I really love is working with student veterans, so as long as I can do that, it will be fine,” Hale said. “That’s what drives me, both professionally and personally; seeing that community succeed.”
Wherever Hale ends up will be changed for the better, just like UNC-CH. And if there’s anything more obvious than the lasting impact he’ll leave behind, it’s that he will undoubtedly be missed.
Edited by Alex Berenfeld