Veterans Day: How colleges are easing leap from war zone to classroom

As soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq take advantage of the new GI bill, some colleges are more veteran-friendly than others. On Veterans Day, here's a look at efforts to smooth that transition.

By , Staff writer

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    (L. to r.) Sean Cady, Army National Guard veteran; John McNeal, Marines veteran; and Travis Martin, Army veteran and EKU Vets founder, relax in the veterans’ lounge at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. EKU was rated the No. 1 veteran-friendly college in the United States. Besides the veterans’ center, EKU also charges in-state tuition for any vet and waives application fees.
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You wouldn't think a lounge with couches, TVs, and computers would be key to a college student's success. But if that lounge is a place where military veterans can connect and help each other out, it could mean the difference between dropping out and graduating.

Craig Jackson serves as a peer mentor in just such a lounge at the University of Maine at Augusta. A 22-year Navy veteran who retired in 2003, he's persuaded student vets with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to seek help at a nearby veterans hospital. He's talked with professors about how students can make up work if they've missed classes because of experiencing flashbacks from fighting in Iraq.

Sometimes it's just a matter of cheering up a fellow vet after a rough time in class: "If a guy says, 'One of the students said something about the war and I didn't like it,' I'll say, 'That's what you fought for. You want to thank them for using that right [to free speech] so that you didn't do it in vain.' That makes them feel better," Mr. Jackson says.

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As hundreds of thousands of troops return from Afghanistan and Iraq and take advantage of the education benefits in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, broad efforts are under way to smooth the transition from battlefield to classroom.

A challenging transition

To go from a highly structured, team-focused environment to the individualized experience of academics can be a bit of a shock, veterans say. Or to hear young classmates complaining about a test may be frustrating when you've been tested by life-and-death scenarios in war.

Nearly 500 chapters of Student Veterans of America have sprung up on college campuses since 2008, providing the peer support that veterans' surveys indicate is essential.

In addition to setting up its lounge and peer-mentoring system, the University of Maine has hired a coordinator of veteran services, offers extra counseling, and gives veterans free entrepreneurial classes – all through a $100,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation and the American Council on Education. The grant was one of 20 handed out in 2009 to boost college support for veterans.

"More and more schools are not just saying they are vet-friendly, but really are trying to be helpful," says Brett Morris, a retired lieutenant colonel and now associate director of veterans affairs at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in Richmond. Military Times EDGE magazine ranked the school No. 1 for vets in 2010.

Here are some ways that EKU and other universities have made life easier for veterans:

•Waiving application fees.

•Offering in-state tuition regardless of residency, since military personnel serve all 50 states.

•Giving priority registration, because veterans may lose educational benefits if they are shut out of courses in their degree plan.

•Granting credit for prior learning in the military.

•Providing tuition-payment extensions and vouchers for textbooks if benefit payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs are delayed.

•Setting up a veterans center.

Most important may be something that can't be mandated – an atmosphere of respect. "The whole student body embraces us," says Ryan Donahue, president of EKU's Student Veterans of America.

But even at EKU, with 675 veterans and current service members on campus, there are pockets of insensitivity to overcome: "The veterans will tell me, 'I had somebody ask me today, did [you] kill anybody?' That's the last question you want to be asked," Mr. Morris says.

To raise awareness, Eastern Kentucky piloted a Veterans Day event that this year has spread to about 170 campuses. During the Remembrance Day National Roll Call on 11/11/11 – an especially symbolic date 10 years after the 9/11 attacks – student veterans and supporters will read the entire list of United States service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's about 6,200 names and will take eight hours. A minute of silence will be observed at 2 p.m., Eastern time.

EKU's ceremony, which will be held right outside the student center, will include a rifle salute and the playing of taps and "Amazing Grace."

"At the end of the ceremony [last year], there was this revelation of how powerful it was," Morris says. "One of the big problems a lot of the vets have is, they come back and they now have different life experiences and they don't feel like they fit on a college campus. So doing things to recognize their service and [show] that the community of students values them is important."

How to choose a 'vet friendly' school?

When veterans shop for a college education, it can be difficult to tell which institutions will serve them best. Members of Congress have raised concerns that some self-proclaimed "vet friendly" schools may be trying to get vets in the door simply to take advantage of their GI Bill dollars.

The US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions has cited examples of students who were drawn into schools under false pretenses and then stuck with high tuition bills or credits that wouldn't transfer. It also released a report recently showing that 8 out of 10 universities receiving the most veteran education-benefit money were for-profit institutions (which have convenient offerings, including online course work, and especially appeal to adult students with jobs). At these places, an average of 60 percent of the student population withdraws within the first year.

Representatives of the for-profit sector say they agree there should be high standards for recruiting practices, but they defend the schools overall: "While a traditional postsecondary experience is appropriate for many veteran students, others want the kind of flexible and accelerated schedules [and] career-focused programs" offered by many for-profits, read a September statement from Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.

One way to identify schools that have signed on to key veteran-friendly practices is to see if they are among the 1,900 listed in the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium. Other schools may also be great choices, says consortium president Kathy Snead, and veterans should ask questions about what's important to them, whether it's the ease of transferring credits or how the college's alumni fare in the job market.

Once veterans choose a school, they have some unique transitional needs – yet there's very little research so far on how to meet them. What's out there tends to focus on mental health.

A recent survey of student veterans found that about 35 percent had severe anxiety, 45 percent had contemplated suicide at some point, and 7.7 percent had attempted suicide, according to the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. By comparison, 1.3 percent of the general college-student population has attempted suicide. The authors suggest that college staff should receive training about combat-related stresses and suicide.

Publicizing needs vs. engendering bias

Some veterans worry that publicity about PTSD and suicide may bias fellow students.

If those numbers are exaggerated, "you're really stigmatizing the veteran student population to the point where everyone will be standoffish," says David Vacchi, a veteran himself who is studying veterans in higher education as a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Someone may have to sit near the exit or a back corner" in a classroom, he says, but that should be seen as similar to accommodating people with physical disabilities.

A fear of stigmatization may be one reason some veterans don't identify themselves as such on campus. Others are just busy or so focused on their new academic mission that they don't need to connect with peers.

But for some, the support of fellow veterans is all they have when times get rough. They may have lost their marriage and kids, Jackson says, and maybe "they're struggling with their demons" from war. So "any stress or wall they come to, instead of trying to climb over it, they'll say, 'That's it. I'm done.' "

This is when people like Jackson step in, doing their best to get vets the help they need to stay on track and earn their degrees.

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