A veteran in Pittsburgh's summer program works in a machine shop

Healing War Wounds

August 12, 2014

Jon Miller is 32 years old, from a town outside Pittsburgh that, according to the latest census data, has a population of 434. He has been in the Army Reserves for more than 15 years. He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in January 2013, planning to major in civil engineering. He wanted to build bridges.

The transition to college life, after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, was tough. “I had a lot of anxiety,” Miller said. “When you go through the military, and especially when you’re this age, you want to strive to not only pass but get toward the top.”

Unlike many veterans, Miller isn’t noticeably hurt. But he has breathing problems, possibly the effect of chemicals used in warfare. He also has gaps in his knowledge. His major in civil engineering required him to draw on skills that had atrophied – or on concepts he’d never mastered in high school.

"I refer to it as Swiss cheese,” he said. “When you go through school as fast as they pump you through, you get a lot of holes.”

Student veterans have made strides. Congress last week passed a bill requiring public universities to offer recent veterans in-state tuition (returning veterans are often “stateless” for residency purposes). And chapters of Student Veterans of America, an association that helps returning veterans integrate into campus life, have grown rapidly in number in the last two years, said Chris Cate, the organization's vice president of research.

Yet despite the increasing public recognition of the distinctive obstacles student veterans face, for many returning veterans college remains jarring. Political momentum may help resolve some of the challenges student veterans contend with, such as delayed GI bill payments and inconsistent campus policies for transferring military credits. But addressing other problems – such as an inability to relate to non-veteran peers, or cognitive and physical disabilities caused by injury – requires painstaking day-to-day work.

Such work is happening at the University of Pittsburgh, where a college transition program for disabled veterans interested in STEM disciplines has earned the admiration of national student veterans’ groups.

To date, 25 veterans, including Miller, have completed a 10-week summer program housed in the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories. The lab specializes in assistive technology – devices for people with disabilities -- and receives funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rory Cooper, the lab’s director, is an Army veteran who sustained a spinal cord injury while serving.

All the participants have cognitive or physical impairments – most commonly traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The program, called ELeVATE (Experiential Learning for Veterans in Assistive Technology and Engineering) began in summer 2011, with the help of a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Five or six veterans participate each year. The fourth group of participants finished the program at the end of July.

Veterans in the transition program all take remedial mathematics and writing courses and participate in professional development activities, such as a recent resume workshop sponsored by Google Pittsburgh. The remedial courses are small -- with just five or six veterans in the classroom -- and the teachers offer personalized instruction, Miller said. The bulk of their time, however, goes toward applied projects in the lab. The program matches veterans with projects in which they have interest or expertise. For example, a student who served as an electrician in the military might be assigned to an electronics project, Goldberg said.  Working closely with a graduate student mentor and a faculty mentor, the veterans build and design assistive technology projects. One developed a low-cost power wheelchair.

Mentors receive training on how to work with participants with cognitive impairments, Goldberg said. Well-honed techniques include breaking tasks down into smaller steps and explaining concepts methodically. The work is difficult – but the participants are resilient.

“We think of ourselves as a safe space to fail because we think failure is an important part of the process,” Goldberg said.

Many institutions have reintegration programs for veterans. But Pittsburgh’s program is alone in allowing veterans to help other veterans through rehabilitation research, Cate said. In addition, more and more veterans in recent years have become interested in STEM, he said.

The participants receive a $4,000 stipend and a $2,100 housing stipend. Non-local participants get $500 to defray start-up and travel costs. The program costs roughly $10,000 per student, said Mary Goldberg, education and outreach project director at Pittsburgh’s department of rehabilitation science and technology, in which the labs are based.

A majority of participants come into the program with some college credit, and two in the program’s history came in already having completed a bachelor’s degree. Roughly 40 percent, however, are transitioning to college for the first time. After the summer program, most participants start or continue at college in the fall.

On average, the participants are about 30 years old, with roughly eight years of military service behind them, Goldberg said. About 70 percent come from the Pittsburgh area. The program has graduated just one woman, although Goldberg hopes to change that through better marketing.

The program’s leaders hope Pittsburgh’s effort will provide a template for other institutions developing services for veterans. The University of Texas at Arlington replicated the program this summer and plans to do so again, Goldberg said. And two to three other institutions have expressed “very sincere interest” in piloting the program, she said.

Pittsburgh’s own expansion capabilities are modest. Goldberg said the program could accommodate up to 10 veterans a year, roughly twice the current number. Although the program gets 10 to 12 applicants for each summer’s cycle, not everyone is a good fit, Goldberg said.

“It’s important we feel we identify participants who are ready and prepared for the program,” she said. “It’s pretty intense.”

Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion, a veterans’ service organization, visited the Pittsburgh lab last week and was moved by what he saw: other veterans, close to his age, absorbing sophisticated knowledge and building complex devices. The program, he said, helped its participants – hampered by cognitive and physical impairments – to “not know any limitations.”

“We as veterans in some cases underestimate ourselves,” he said. “And I think some people believe we are limited by our physical abilities or our mental abilities. [But] if someone’s willing to teach, I guarantee you, you will find veterans who are willing to learn.”

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