Basic Back-to-School Training

Veterans Upward Bound offers free classes to gear people up for college after their military service

Many of the students in this classroom were once extremely eager to get away from school. Now, they're only too glad to be back.

"I can't wait to get here every day," says Calvin Wilson, who dropped out of college after two weeks in

1969. "I wish it could go on and on," says Richard Young, who finished high school about 30 years ago.

Mr. Wilson and Mr. Young are spending 13 weeks reviewing basic English and math four evenings a week. For many adults, such an experience would hardly seem a dream come true. But the men (and one woman) in this class all delayed their education for military service - in some cases, for decades - and now they're taking advantage of a free opportunity either to complete their high school education or prepare for college.

The Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) sessions are open to anyone who has served in the armed forces for at least 181 days since 1955 and exited with a discharge above the level of dishonorable.

For many participants, the opportunity "is something that changes their lives," says William Broderick, a VUB instructor. Mr. Broderick speaks from experience. An Army vet who served stateside during the Vietnam War, he completed the program in 1990, went on to earn two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and today works as a college professor.

The Veterans Administration launched VUB in the 1970s to help vets coming home from Vietnam get their high school diplomas. The program has since been adopted by the US Department of Education, which funds it and places more emphasis on college preparation.

But Veterans Upward Bound is also about increasing self-esteem and broadening horizons.

"We emphasize the academics, but the confidence and self-assurance come naturally," says Randy Wilson, director of the VUB center at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. "We've had vets come back and tell us how happy they were to be shown that they could achieve, that they weren't necessarily stuck where they were."

Over the past 20 years, an estimated 120,000 vets have participated at 44 centers nationwide.

College advice in a college setting

In Philadelphia, the program is housed on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Instructors are drawn from UPenn and nearby schools.

Courses run in three 13-week cycles a year. In addition to basic academics, the vets are instructed in public speaking, study skills, and time management. Comprehensive college counseling is also available.

"They give us practical information on student loans and financial aid, and encourage us to see college as an investment," says Willie Lewis, who served in the National Guard for 17 years and plans to begin classes at the Community College of Philadelphia this fall.

The Philadelphia program also takes time out for group fun: an annual field trip to New York to see a Broadway show.

Typically, the students who participate in VUB are older than most college students. About 30 or 40 percent are Vietnam vets, and many others served in the military in the aftermath of the Korean War, or during or after the Gulf War.

Their reasons for wanting to return to school are as varied as the life experiences of the vets themselves. Many see education as a path to better economic opportunity. But for others, the motivation is more personal.

"I have kids, and I don't want them to be ashamed of me," says Herbert Day, who dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and went on to serve in the Army for four years in the 1970s. "Even if I don't get my degree, it just feels so good."

"It helps keep the mind clicking," says Bertram Trotter, who served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War. "I hadn't been in school in 33 years, and I wanted to get myself back in the game."

Only about 52 percent of the vets who participate in VUB complete it. But administrators insist that they don't see the low completion rate as a failure. "We lose many of them for positive reasons," Broderick says. "They get promoted at work or are suddenly able to pass a civil service test they were never able to pass before."

Since the program's inception in the 1970s, 17,536 vets are known to have continued on to college, with an additional 3,319 moving on to some other form of training.

Some of the participants say there are social benefits to the experience as well. "The teachers here have such a good concept of life," says John Carrington Jr., an Army vet who dropped out of high school in 11th grade. "It's helpful just to be with them."

Visions of future accomplishments

But for many, VUB is principally about finally making it into college and fulfilling some long-cherished dreams.

Raymond Millburn, who served in the Army in the 1960s and has been out of school for 42 years, says he hopes to study theology. Charles Dargan, an Army man who served in Korea, wants to get a degree in psychology and open a residence for troubled teens.

"This is my chance," says Jacquelyn Pouncy, who served in the Army in the 1970s and now wants to work as a screenwriter. "Instead of someday saying, 'I could have,' I want to say, 'I did.' "

As students, the vets tend to take their work very seriously and to be hungry for feedback and self-improvement.

In a public speaking class with instructor Tara Sanchez, one student is eager to deliver his speech a second time. "I know I could do better," he insists. Another has an intense discussion with Ms. Sanchez about why she marked him down half a point on a written outline. "Should I have elaborated more?" he asks.

Sanchez, a graduate student at UPenn, says she is keenly aware of certain of the students' needs because her husband went through VUB. "Many of them need to learn basic classroom etiquette when it comes to a class discussion," she says. "They need to learn things like not interrupting, not getting mad, not launching an attack on a person."

In discussing current events, though, she says they have a significant advantage. "You ask them how many different countries they've been to, and the list is really long." She still urges many, however, to learn to read daily newspapers more thoroughly to fill in some gaps.

Jerry Herbin, a Navy man during the Gulf War, says the VUB sessions he's participated in have reawakened his interest in studying and reading. "It's contagious," he says. "Right now, I'm so motivated and having so much fun."

In the fall, Mr. Herbin will start computer science classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. "It's like a second chance in life," he says of his dream to get a four-year degree in the field. Working at the post office without a college degree, he says, "I was starting to feel so left behind, like I was living in the Stone Age."

But many of the vets are also quick to point out that returning to classes after a gap of many years is not easy. "This ain't no fun and games," Mr. Lewis says. Some say they struggle with negative feelings about their own abilities.

That's one reason Sanchez says she was thrilled with a speech Mr. Millburn gave one night in her class. The assignment had been to give a persuasive talk, and Millburn spoke to his classmates about their shared endeavor.

"We can do this!" he told them in a speech that Sanchez says was beautifully executed. "We will do this! Some of us were discouraged about low grades, but if we stick with it, we will bring them up."

He closed with a ringing exhortation that some say could be the VUB motto: "Be encouraged!"

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

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