Operation Transition

Now that Congress has provided billions more for veterans to become students, colleges consider what programs they need -- and the pros and cons of separate services.
July 10, 2008

John Schupp is a one-man welcome wagon.

When a veteran first comes to Cleveland State University’s campus, Schupp gets a call on his cell. “I walk them to admissions, personally, they meet someone in admissions, personally, who welcomes them home," he said, punctuating the word, 'personally.'

"Then I walk them over to the bursar where I pay the $30 [application fee]. Then we walk the form over to the registrar, who welcomes them again.”

“Every veteran who has signed up for classes at CSU, every one of them I’ve met individually,” said Schupp, a part-time chemistry instructor and director of Cleveland State’s Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran program, or SERV. “It’s not that hard to do. It takes an hour. And that’s with a lot of walking, too.”

A new, much-improved GI Bill, signed into law last week, will go a long way toward helping combat veterans pay for college. With billions in new federal dollars available – an estimated $62 billion over 10 years – college leaders are thinking about how to attract veterans, in part by matching more money with, well, more money. Ohio's governor on Tuesday signed an executive order extending lower in-state tuition rates to GI Bill enrollees from out of state. Nazareth College, in Rochester, recently announced a new veterans scholarship to supplement the G.I. Bill. It's worth up to $7,500 per year for four years.

But, beyond money (obviously quite important), what’s going to make them stay?

“I think people are starting to look at veterans as a population and looking at how we can integrate them and transition them into higher education,” said Kathy Snead, president of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium. “I know we are getting questions and inquiries from a lot of groups about, ‘What do the numbers look like; how many veterans do you think will enroll in college?’ That’s hard to tell. But obviously colleges that are more well-equipped, who anticipate the needs of veterans, will certainly draw the attention of veterans.”

Snead said key priorities identified by student veterans include peer-to-peer advising programs, specialized orientations and veteran student centers or lounges. She advocates that colleges set up task forces to identify “military-friendly” approaches they can adopt in academic and student services, counseling, and other domains. “It’s fertile ground, so there are all sorts of possibilities for what colleges can do.”

Classmates as Teammates

One of Schupp’s students witnessed the hanging of burned bodies over a bridge in Iraq. “You go from that situation to sitting in English class trying to learn about dangling participles with 18-year-old freshmen asking if you killed anybody. You can see the transition is pretty hard," Schupp said.

Cleveland State’s SERV represents one institution’s unique approach to easing the transition. Schupp, who's not a veteran himself, was first inspired to start such a program after hearing about the academic and adjustment issues faced by a student who’d been deployed to Kosovo. He began asking veterans from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars what they would have wanted out of their colleges. Out of their answers came SERV, built around five ideals – including lowering the bureaucratic barriers that stand between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which distributes the GI Bill benefits, and the university (barriers that the veterans themselves are often left straddling). SERV also aims to connect prospective employers with veterans, and, for their first two semesters, offers veterans-only general education classes.

This spring, Cleveland State offered its first four general education courses for veterans. No one has to enroll in the veterans-only classes: Out of around 300 veterans expected on campus this coming fall, Schupp projects that each of four general education classes will attract 20 to 25 students each. Out of 14 in Schupp’s chemistry class this spring, 10 got a C or better, two withdrew for medical reasons, one withdrew because of a family problem and “one joined a fraternity so I lost him, he’s gone.” ("I just never saw him," Schupp said.)

Schupp described the courses as still experimental, and said he’ll be evaluating outcomes after the first year. ("As a research person, being a chemist, I look into why things work and why they don't work and getting a cause behind it and finding a solution," he said.)

Asked whether separating veterans into their own classes isolates them, Schupp said he recommends that students take at least one course with civilians, and pointed out that the veterans-only classes only extend through the first two semesters. “The goal is not to isolate them, the goal is to have them slowly transition,” he said, arguing, for instance, that many veterans have an easier time concentrating when, instead of being surrounded by civilians they’re trained to protect, they’re encircled by other veterans, their “team.”

“They’re trained to assess crowds and assess situations and find the danger in them. That’s what they’re trained to do, not to focus on a test.
The team is what helps you survive. College campuses are all individual. All I’m trying to do is recreate the team concept," Schupp said.

"When you're in a large boxed-in area, you may tell yourself, ‘I'm in school, I'm in college,’ but you automatically have that fight-or-flight response. The veterans classes are smaller. You're surrounded by people who did similar things as you in the same area,” said Joshua Miller, a former infantry medic who started classes at Cleveland State this spring.

"I liked the idea of vet-only classes because as much as I didn't miss being in Iraq or Afghanistan, I did miss the camaraderie I had when I was in the military,” Miller said.

"Just because you got out of the military doesn't mean you stop being a soldier. You're always going to be a soldier. And you're always going to take care of each other. That’s what you do."

Boots to Books, Troops to College

“There’s a term I coined called ‘military readjustment transition issues,’” said Manuel Martinez, a trauma counselor who has worked with combat war veterans for 20 years. “First of all, there’s post-traumatic stress disorder, what we know of as PTSD, then there’s post-trauma embitterment, then there’s battlemind" – a Department of Defense term, battlemind, Martinez explained, references “the different survival mechanisms you have to develop in combat, and how those turn against you when you become a civilian.")

“Then there’s combat stress reaction. Just about anyone who’s been in a combat zone is going to come back with some degree of stress just for being in a combat zone. Then there’s combat grief,” said Martinez, who, since last fall, has taught a hybrid college success/transition class for veterans called “Boots to Books” at Citrus College, a community college in California.

“If they want to retain our vets, I think these colleges are going to have to extend themselves and help them deal with their unique problems," Martinez said.

Arguably the most significant effort -- at least in terms of scope -- is ongoing in California. The "Troops to College" initiative, now in its second year, spans all of California's public campuses (all 143 of them). Even the University of California at Berkeley -- hardly a bastion of military culture -- recently announced a new veterans support team. Berkeley will be offering a class designed for veterans this fall.

“Each campus is different," said Col. Bucky Peterson, retired, chairman of the Troops to College task force. "But what we’re encouraging is that there’s a single point of contact on each of the campuses -- that a veteran knows that's where the starting point is."

“Military men and women sort of have a checklist mentality if you will. What [the single point of contact] does is integrate and synchronize and set up a network on the campus,” Colonel Peterson said – connecting the veteran with an admissions officer who handles military-specific transfer of credit issues, for instance, or a counselor who specializes in PTSD, as well as linking veterans to student veterans organizations, and, in the community, local veterans groups and Veterans Affairs resources. “That single point of contact on the campus we’re hoping will integrate all the services, and there are more than that.”

“Clearly the bottom line is that a veteran wants to be part of campus life, and whatever a campus can do to make that happen is a good thing.”

Veterans Centers

Many interviewed for this article described offering specialized services for veterans – administrative, social and, in the case of Cleveland State, academic – in seemingly counterintuitive terms. The specialized programs, they stressed, are ultimately intended to integrate veterans into the broader campus community. Snead, of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges Consortium, said that she’s not concerned about whether such programs could instead have the opposite effect of isolating veterans. “By and large, students lean on people like them, peer groups and support groups, to transition, whatever special interest they might have,” Snead said. She added that, over time and through various classroom and campus interactions, “the differentiation between veteran and nonveteran may become very, very blurred.”

Snead said that the consortium has joined with some other higher education associations in developing a national survey to assess the scope of on-campus veterans programs. Without any hard data yet, it’s her sense anecdotally, she said, that the majority of colleges have not yet designated veterans student lounges and the like.

Yet, the progress and now passage of the new GI Bill does seem to be generating an uptick of interest in, for instance, setting up one-stop student services shops for veterans, or establishing veterans centers or lounges. A bill introduced in January by Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.) and Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) -- which, according to Hinojosa's staff, is included in compromise legislation to renew the Higher Ed Act – would authorize a federal grant program for colleges that set up “model programs to support veteran student success." Under the terms of the legislation, qualifying colleges would establish a Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success, develop a veterans support team involving representatives from admissions, registration, financial aid, veterans benefits, academic advising, health, career advising, disabilities and other relevant areas, hire a full- or part-time coordinator, and monitor veteran student enrollment, persistence and completion.

“As our veterans pursue their college education, it’s imperative that we provide more campus services, that we go beyond increased financial support so that our veterans can cut through the red tape and successfully readjust to the college life,” Hinojosa, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness, said in an interview.

Mississippi State University established the G.V. “Sonny“ Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans in 2006. Frank Wills, president of the student veterans group and formerly a student worker in the center, said such a site “basically has a place in every state as far as I’m concerned.”

“Right now, say if a veteran had a problem, they come here to the center and rectify their situation,” said Wills, who graduates with a bachelor’s degree in August and will then start graduate school in public policy at Mississippi State. "It's a full staff dedicated to the needs, specific needs of veterans. Their only job is to find the solutions to problems veterans face on this campus."

Wills, who's now 29, started at community college in Florida in 2004 within a month of leaving the front gates of North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. Things were different then.

“Now when I first started, it was, 'You had to wait in line with everyone else.' What I’m saying is that veterans are different than traditional 17- and 18-year-old kids, or students, or however you want to reference it. It takes so much for the academic society to understand it. As soon as you are on campus, they want to make you think you’re not different. Well, you are," said Wills.

When Wills’ financial aid isn’t there, for instance, he doesn’t call on mom and dad, and he needs to know “where it’s at and why it’s not here. The answer is not, 'It will be here.' The answer is when. I need a date, I need a time, because my bills and my life depend on it. And they don’t understand that stuff."

“They play it off like you’re just a normal student. Well, the reality of it is you’re not a normal student,” Wills said.

“You’re more disciplined, you have a goal in mind, you need to go forward and you need to go there fast.”


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