Veterans Day: For many vets, college is scarier than Afghanistan

Veterans Day highlights the the sky-high dropout rates for veterans attending college. But new college 'boot camps' are helping vets transition to a new life of classroom debates and selfies. 

Butch Comegys/The Times & Tribune/AP
A total of 6,857 US flags are placed in memory of the men and women who lost their lives in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the campus of Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., Monday in advance of Veterans Day.

When Matthew Maclaine arrived in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province with his scout sniper platoon in 2012, it was a dream come true.

“It’s like playing in the Super Bowl” for a Marine Corps infantryman, he says. “You’ve been training for years and years to do this thing. Now you’re in combat, you’re here—you’re in the big game.” 

His deployment was everything he hoped it would be, he says, culminating in a behind-enemy-lines mission when his sniper platoon inserted 12 hours before a major operation.

“Whenever you watch movies, snipers enter behind enemy lines,” Mr. Maclaine says. “But that almost never happens in real life. We were doing the sniper mission,” providing reconnaissance and surveillance prior to the operation’s commencement. 

The highlight was calling in a helicopter to extract his team from a mountaintop. “We spent four days on top of this mountain and it was time to go,” he says. “It was the culmination of every skill that I had developed, and to take my team from a hostile environment to a safe one – that was the best feeling ever.”

It was a satisfaction in sharp contrast to a rather different sort of hostile environment – his arrival at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., after four years in the Marines. He was “just miserable,” he says.

He recalls an early party he attended filled with “high school drama,” selfies, and social media. “I was maybe four years older than some of them, but I felt really removed. They’re all taking selfies and posting on Instagram, and I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

“College is a weird place compared to the military.”

It is a feeling common among many troops. Only one quarter of post-9/11 veterans managed to attain a degree before blowing through their GI Bill benefits, according to a 2012 Census Bureau survey. Between 2003 and 2009, the completion rate for bachelor’s degrees among veterans was roughly 10 percent, the United States Department of Education estimates.

In response, programs to help student veterans successfully transition to life on campus have begun to crop up nationwide. A college-immersion boot camp called the Warrior-Scholar Project, for example, has helped Mr. Maclaine stick it out at Saddleback despite at times feeling like more like a chaperone than a student.

There have been signs of success. After four summers of Warrior-Scholar programs, each of the 265 student-veteran participants who has started attending college has stayed with it.

The need is clear. Some 1 million troops interested in using their new GI Bill will leave military service – either by choice or as a result of post-war downsizing – between now and 2020. That amounts to a national investment of some $30 billion. Two million veterans across the country are currently eligible for the program. 

“The data is inconsistent, but none of it is good for veterans,” says Sidney Ellington, the executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project. “So we’re trying to fill that gap, and enable these veterans to actually get something out of their GI Bill before it’s exhausted.” 

The one week program was first held on the campus of Yale University in 2012 with nine students. It now offers spots for 150 veterans a year at colleges including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vassar, Syracuse, Cornell, and Georgetown University. 

“I went through what amounts to three years of training before going to Afghanistan. Even though we’ve done what many may consider ‘harder things,’ we were trained to do them. That’s what makes it manageable,” Maclaine says. “It’s naive to assume that veterans will do well just because they’re veterans.”

Confidence and commas 

After serving as a Marine intelligence analyst on the ground in Libya during and following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, former Marine Patrick Kane says that he was “basically petrified” early in his freshman year at Columbia University in 2014.

“I was petrified of studying, petrified of asking questions,” he says. “I didn't know how to study, and so I didn’t study – it was the fear that if I did study, I wouldn’t get it.”

After his first semester, he enrolled at a Warrior-Scholar boot camp at Yale. 

“They showed us how to study, and that’s where the confidence started to grow. Then it was about having the confidence to speak out, and feeling confident that you belong,” Mr. Kane says.

Maclaine took to the course at Yale back in 2013. In the first three or four months Saddleback, “I had two friends on campus, and they were more like acquaintances.” But after he took the program, things changed.

It hammered “the value of developing relationships outside of the ones I had before,” Maclaine says. “If you don’t develop relationships with people at school, you’re going to have a hard time.”

He picked up some more basic skills, too, including training in “how to use commas and write cohesive paragraphs…. I wouldn’t have gotten A’s otherwise,” he says. “I went into English and Algebra class and just crushed it – I destroyed those classes.” 

This training and camaraderie is particularly helpful when former troops also may be struggling with post-traumatic stress following their years of service, veterans say. 

'I was unhealthily reclusive' 

Ryan Polk knew he wanted to be in the military back in high school, when his best friend’s father was killed while serving in Iraq. “I didn’t have much of an interest in killing, but I wanted to join to bring home more guys like him.” [Editor's note: A reference to the Marines has been removed from this paragraph.]

He enlisted in the Army in 2008 and became a medic, deploying to Iraq two weeks after completing his airborne training. It was on his third deployment, this time in Afghanistan, that a platoon leader in the unit he was attached to was shot.

They were calling for a medic as a more explosions erupted around them.

“I was able to get him behind a rock and treat him.”

As he was carrying him to the landing zone to have him medically evacuated, however, Mr. Polk was injured, sustaining shrapnel in his side.  

“I learned a lot about myself – what I can do, and what I can overcome.” Getting out of the military was tough, however, and he went through a period where he imagined he would be a truck driver. “I thought, ‘I can be alone,’ ” Polk says. 

He had been an extrovert, but his experience in the Army, and the dissolution of his marriage, changed that, he says. “I didn’t have anyone to come home to – I was unhealthily reclusive.”

But during an exit seminar from the Army, he learned about the Posse Veterans Program, launched in 2012 and now in three schools – Vassar, Wesleyan, and Dartmouth, which all pledge to supplement available GI Bill funding to guarantee full tuition for every student veteran that is accepted into the program.

Through his posse he met his good friend Malcolm, who picks him up and brings him to social events. “I say, ‘I’ll go out because I know you.’ ”

Social events made him wary. “I was scared that they would ask stupid questions, or tell me that I was wrong for serving.” 

Polk was also concerned that the “pretty long beard” he grew after he got out of the Army might be off-putting. “I thought, best-case scenario, they might think I’m kind of creepy.” 

What he discovered, however, was very different.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has been very open, not just asking questions because it’s fun, but because they just want the raw information of what happened.” In the process he’s found that the first time he’s been able to talk openly about his experiences in combat, “It’s been with 18-year-olds.”

Wesleyan University in Connecticut currently has 20 military veterans as students on campus through the program.

“We’ve been engaged in a series of wars that haven't even been labeled wars, and they demand an enormous sacrifice from a very small percentage of the population, and the rest of us depend on that sacrifice whether we like it or not, but never really have to talk to somebody who patrolled the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan,” says Wesleyan University President Michael Roth.

“I thought this was a great thing – we’d both help deserving student veterans with financial assistance, and it would also be good for the campus because they would have a very different life experience from most of our other students,” he adds. “They’re a little bit older, more mature, and they are intensely curious about the world and about themselves. I think they want to make the most of their education, and they don’t take it for granted. There’s a kind of intensity to that that’s just great.” 

Vets inspired to take the lead 

The insights that come through this passion have prompted a number of veterans to begin creating campus programs on their own. 

Matthew Gallaway chose to attend Northern Illinois University in 2014 after serving in the Navy. He was drawn back home by the Illinois Veterans Grant program, which covers tuition and fees for those who return to Illinois for college within six months of separating from the US military.

He found some helpful resources in place for veterans, including a lounge and a dedicated computer lab. But after attending a Student Veterans of America conference in San Antonio, Texas – the same year his university lost two student veterans to suicide – he met representatives from colleges with dedicated buildings that include counseling services, for example. 

“It gave me an image of what a truly vet-friendly university looks like,” he says. “It’s motivated me to work towards making NIU a truly veteran-friendly university.”

He started by taking over a building that used to be a fraternity house and making it into home for seven of his fellow student veterans. “The residents are able to relax and have the mature discussions that younger students – your 18- or 19-year-old high school graduates – wouldn’t understand,” he says.

But he recognizes, too, the importance of connecting veterans with the university community. Many student veterans at NIU join fraternities, he notes. “They’re joining these fraternities, which are usually run by younger guys, and sharing their leadership, knowledge, and experience.”

Recently, the veterans house hosted a pig roast, inviting veterans along with sororities and fraternities down the road. Mr. Gallaway is also making efforts to connect student vets with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters. “We want to give guys those social connections outside the university community, so they still have that community when they graduate.” 

Learning from other students 

As they become more involved in campus life, if reluctantly at first, veterans are finding that they reap the rewards. After his Warrior-Scholar boot camp, Maclaine decided to join student government.

That’s where he met his current girlfriend of two years, and went on to chair a veterans student committee where he was in charge of 15 undergraduates.

He recalls in particular a freshman named Lucy. “When I interviewed her for my council I was intentionally gruff and intimidating – rightly or wrongly. I’d never interviewed someone before, and I wanted to see how she’d do under pressure.”

In response, “she sat up straight, she was authoritative in her speech, direct in her responses.” 

She had a plan to get things done, too, and as the year progressed, she became his most valuable asset on the student council.

“I saw this young woman have the sort of tenacity and resolve that I wouldn’t have seen in a first-year Marine,” he says. “That was inspiring.”

He learned, too, from his first boss in the student government, who was 4 foot 11. She was also a woman, and Maclaine admits that he was initially skeptical of this fact.

“I’d only ever worked with men, and that was weird for me. There are a lot of guys in the Marine Corps who are kind of misogynist, but I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to force myself to be as positive towards this as I can.’ ” 

She became one of his mentors. “She was phenomenal,” he says. “It was a new situation for me, an opportunity to learn – and I love opportunities to learn.”

For Andrew Hill, an Army sergeant for six years, the Warrior-Scholar program has been about raising his expectations. 

The program “shows us that we can compete academically with other students,” says Mr. Hill, who attended the weeklong boot camp at Georgetown University this summer. “I’m starting to think, ‘I can do this.’ I don’t have to just go to community college – I can be successful in a big institution.” 

 He is now planning to apply to Emory University in Atlanta. 

 “I want to not just do OK, but to be exceptional,” Mr. Hill says. “That’s what I tell my soldiers: Be exceptional.” 

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