Veterans Returning to College Face Unique Challenges

Computer lab.

ST. LOUIS -- Army veteran Ben Miller remembers the isolation he felt when he enrolled at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the fall of 2009.

"I would show up on campus, talk to absolutely no one and go home," said Miller, 27, who did three tours in Iraq as a counterintelligence specialist. "I didn't feel like I really belonged."

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down and enhancements to the GI Bill, colleges and universities are expecting a surge in veteran enrollment unseen since World War II.

But some academics and veterans advocates are warning that many colleges are unprepared to deal with the unique needs of former service members. Many veterans face a difficult transition to civilian life, ranging from readjustment issues to recovery from physical and mental injuries. And they say without special attention, many will fail to graduate.

"If colleges are not prepared to help transition soldiers from combat, you do run the risk of losing an entire generation," said Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The GI Bill isn't a thank you for your service. What it really is, is a readjustment benefit. It is giving them the opportunity to do something that is constructive for their mind and their body, that gives them a mission and allows them to move forward in life. It's a backstop so you're not walking right off the plane from combat into the civilian world. It was designed to be a soft landing."

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Studies show that some strategies work to keep veterans in school. They include specialized orientation programs, helping veterans connect with one another, training faculty and staff on challenges veterans face and offering more counseling and financial aid. But surveys show that many schools are lacking in such efforts.

At UMSL, the number of students enrolled on the GI Bill from 2000 to 2009 fluctuated between 180 and 200, depending on deployments. Since 2009, when eligible veterans were provided significantly more for tuition, housing and books, that number has risen to 270. The school expects it to go up even more.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently met with four veterans attending UMSL on the GI Bill. Their experiences mirrored those facing many service members entering the college ranks.

All said they had felt isolated and had difficulty adjusting to the campus culture and trouble relating to younger students.

Three said they were bored with college life.

"It's the mundaneness of it," said Scott Ury, a nursing student who traveled the world and did two Iraq tours as a security officer during six years in the Air Force.

All four said they missed the action and camaraderie of the military and had considered returning.

"You were part of a group, where the big brother was looking out for the little brother," said Patrick Barry, 25, who grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri, graduated from Christian Brothers College High School and did two tours in Iraq as a Marine combat engineer. In addition to a full course load, Barry also works full time as a truck dispatcher. At UMSL, he joined a fraternity. Even so, like the other veterans, he said he's had trouble making connections with younger students, whom he sees as less disciplined and unable to relate to his experiences.

"A lot of times, I feel alone," he said.

Miller said that was part of the reason why he helped establish a veterans student organization at UMSL.

"It's a great support network," said Miller, who is studying business. "It gave me the friends I do have in St. Louis."

A campus veterans organization or office that helps service members feel more engaged in student life is one key indicator of whether they will be academically successful, said Kathy Snead, director of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a government-funded organization that helps veterans complete their degrees.

"Working as a group, they help push each other," Snead said. "That support group keeps them in school."

The UMSL veterans headquarters in the Millennium Student Center was a single desk decorated on a recent day with a small American flag.

Ury, who arrived at UMSL in 2009, said he could sometimes pick out the other veterans walking on campus but never introduced himself. He stopped by the veterans desk a few weeks ago after learning the group was planning a Veterans Day commemoration. Now, he stops every day. He said his wife told him he's seemed much happier since.

"I sit in the chair and hope somebody walks by," Ury said. "For me, being around other vets who have experienced the same thing is comforting or calming. You don't have to worry about what they're thinking. If I'm sitting around a college student, I'm worried about whether what I'm doing, thinking, saying is different, normal."

"We understand each other," Miller said.

"We all know we've been through something," Barry said.

Navy veteran Joe Gomez recalled his first daunting days of college, crisscrossing campus to sign up for class, line up his financial aid and attend to details that are part of enrollment.

"Sometimes, it's frustrating when you get out of the service and don't know how to do these things," said Gomez, 27, who spent six years learning about ballistic missiles as a submariner, but received only a week of Navy training to prepare him for his return to the civilian world.

As head of UMSL's veterans student organization, Gomez, a political science major from Pacific High School, is pushing for an on-campus veterans center and college credit for military training.

"We realize the problems, and being the troubleshooters we are, we're trying to fix our own problems," Gomez said.

He would also like to see attendance policies relaxed, noting that many student veterans have work, family and other obligations.

"College is a service. It's a business transaction. I'm paying you thousands of dollars to sit in your classroom. As long as I'm performing and doing the things I need to do ... you shouldn't be able to dock points, because I didn't show up to class."

If veterans were an afterthought at UMSL, they've become a priority in recent months, mostly because of the concerns raised by the students, said Ron Yasbin, dean of UMSL's College of Arts and Sciences.

"This is a new realization for us," he said. "Maybe we were slow to the table. Clearly, we're committed to it now."

Among the improvements pledged is the hiring by spring of a veteran liaison who will serve as a single point of contact and eliminate the "human pingpong ball" experience vets go through when enrolling for classes. The liaison also will serve as a resource for former service members, Yasbin said.

"Most of the time, we think of veterans as more mature, but they have different needs," Yasbin said. "They are coming from a regimented environment to a college environment where we might not offer as much direction."

Yasbin said many services already exist on campus to keep veterans from falling behind. But coming from a culture where they've been taught to adapt and overcome, many veterans are reluctant to seek help.

Yasbin thinks the university will soon approve awarding honorably discharged veterans three credit hours in leadership.

And a course is being discussed that would help veterans adjust to the classroom, learn about programs and assistance, and share their experiences with other students.

"They're going to have seen things our traditional students have never seen," Yasbin said. "Buddies blown up on roads, the treatment of women in Afghanistan. I think they can add a lot to our learning experience."

But on some issues, like class attendance, Yasbin isn't willing to compromise.

"We're not Walmart. Education is more than reading a book and answering questions. We're looking for the total experience. To us, this is a sacred trust that you are entrusting your education to us," Yasbin said.

All the veterans admit to being conflicted about the role their military service should play in their education. While they don't want to be singled out, they also don't want to be lumped in.

"I don't need to be recognized for being in the military. You don't have to look at me and say, 'He's a veteran,' and I don't need special preference," Ury said. "But in the same breath, I am appreciative of teachers who say, 'Yeah, this is a veteran, and they are not a traditional student and they require special attention.' Academically, we're different; financially, we're different; in so many ways, we're different."

Not all teachers recognize that, they say.

"They view us as we're students, and that's it," Gomez said. "Whether you're 18 and fresh out of high school or have several years of military service were kind of lumped together in the student body."

During his time at UMSL, Ury said his military experience has come up only once in the classroom. During orientation for a microbiology class, the teacher asked any veterans in the lecture hall to stand. A few stood. The teacher thanked them for their service. His classmates applauded.

"That felt great," Ury said. "I don't expect that sort of treatment, but at the same time, it was nice."

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