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Colleges Focus on Veterans as GI Bill Ups Numbers


With a fattened GI Bill covering full tuition and more, the number of veterans attending college this fall is expected to jump 30 percent from last year to nearly half a million. That’s left many universities looking for ways to ease the transition from combat to the classroom.

Vets already in school have run into problems including campus bureaucracy, crowds that can trigger alarm instincts honed by war and fellow students who don’t understand their battlefield experiences.

In response, colleges across the country are offering veterans-only classes, adding counselors and streamlining the application and financial aid process.

Under the new GI Bill expanded by Congress last year, the number of military veterans either starting or continuing their studies this fall is expected to top 460,000, up from 354,000 last autumn, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many of them will encounter a classroom culture shock that can leave them agitated.

Ask Colin Closs, a former Fort Campbell soldier studying at Cleveland State University in Ohio, what bothers him most about how veterans are treated on campus and he lists strange and sometimes rude questions people have asked.

“Was it hot?”

“Were you always in a tent?”

“Did you ever kill anybody?”

Closs benefited this past school year from a program at Cleveland State started in 2007 by chemistry professor John Schupp to form some freshman-level classes with all veterans. Schupp’s idea is to keep the military men and women together as a unit so they can support and motivate each other.

The University of Arizona adopted his program last year and schools in at least a dozen states are working on programs modeled on Cleveland State.

Closs said after leaving the military, he had trouble interacting with people who didn’t understand his wartime experiences. But when he takes classes with other veterans, they can talk about problems they may have, whether its educational or personal.

“It’s like the VFW hall without the alcohol,” Closs said.

The University of West Florida in Pensacola, not far from Eglin Air Force Base, is adding counselors to help service members with post traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems, but administrators recognize that veterans don’t want to be categorized as disabled.

“They feel like they are ostracized, or there’s a stigma attached, so how we handle that is getting a lot of scrutiny,” said Marc Churchwell, the school’s military education program coordinator.

Churchwell, who is retired from the Navy, said his own experience with the previous GI Bill made him want to make the process easier for the next generation of men and women in the military.

“It was very frustrating for me to the point I was ready to quit,” Churchwell said. “My goal is for those people to come to me so they don’t have to deal with it.”

The University of California, Los Angeles has short orientation sessions for veterans and is creating an Iraq and Afghanistan veterans re-adjustment group in the fall.

Matthew Nichols, a psychologist who just joined UCLA’s counseling and psychological services after working for the VA, said he’s hopeful that students will feel more comfortable asking for help on a college campus versus walking into a veterans hospital.

“These are everyday concerns,” he said. “It’s much less about ‘there’s something wrong with me,’ and more about ‘how can I study a little better?”’ he said.

Universities that have traditionally served military students are also finding that their new and returning students need help navigating the bureaucracy of the enrollment process.

At Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., just outside of Fort Campbell, Ky., the school has been holding community meetings about the new GI Bill and helping administrators from other colleges who have questions.

As the largest veteran-enrolled college in the state, about 15 percent of their students get some kind of veterans education benefit, whether they are surviving spouses, retired or still on active duty. They’ll be adding faculty in some departments, including political science, for the expected increase in students using the new benefits and just opened a new extension building on the base this year to serve military students.

Congress voted last year to dramatically expand the GI Bill. The old measure offered $1,321 a month to cover all college costs. Effective Aug. 1, the new bill will cover tuition and fees for any in-state public university, a housing allowance and $1,000 a year for books and supplies.

Even though getting the old GI Bill was a recruiting point for the military for decades, many soldiers have had trouble going back to school, sometimes because they are older and often have families.

Jason Davis, 28, enlisted in the Army only a couple of weeks after Sept. 11 after dropping out of high school and facing minimum-wage jobs. Davis deployed twice to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, and then was stop-lossed, a military practice of holding troops beyond their enlistment dates. He spent another 18 months after that in the California National Guard.

The former sergeant said he struggled to find a job to support his wife and baby boy after leaving the military in 2008, mainly because his combat infantry job didn’t translate into good work experience.

“There was no direction, and I had to figure out everything on my own,” he said. “I felt like I was left to swim alone.”

He’s been taking classes at a local community college in Irvine, Calif., and tried to start up a student veterans group, but found that many have barriers that keep them from getting involved on campus. “We’re all older, or we have families, obligations or jobs,” he said.

With the extra benefits coming to him under the new GI Bill, Davis will be able to afford to study literary journalism at the University of California at Irvine next fall. “It’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time,” he said.

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