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New GI Bill Brings New Challenges

With expanded education benefits for war veterans taking effect in August, public institutions anticipate having to cater to veterans’ unique needs.

U.S. Marine and first-generation college student Tess Banko says that college life was unpredictable and unnerving because each professor had different expectations, unlike the uniformity of the military

Tess Banko felt more scared when she began college in 2004 than in her three years as a Marine. She’d quickly learned what the military expected of her and developed routines.

By comparison, college life was unpredictable and unnerving. Each professor had different expectations that sometimes changed over the course of a semester. And the lives of her younger classmates differed dramatically from that of Banko, who was widowed by her mid-20s and sustained a career-ending injury in the Marines.

Yet she and other college-going veterans believe their higher education difficulties are worth the long-term gain. They hope that veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, however intimidated they might feel, will join them in classrooms as improved financial incentives become available.

“Even though I’ve never been in combat, we’ve been through some of the same things,” says Banko, referring to troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s majoring in social work at San Diego State University.

Beginning Aug. 1, many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans become eligible for expanded benefits under the post-Sept. 11 GI Bill. Veterans meeting government criteria essentially qualify for education at a fouryear public university at no cost. Some can transfer benefits to spouses and children. The legislation is the most recent update of the original GI Bill of 1944, which promised troops returning from World War II enough money for a bachelor’s degree plus living expenses. But over the years, rising tuition outpaced the amount of benefits, forcing veterans to take out loans.

With expanded education benefits poised to take effect, public universities are not alone in the spotlight. Community colleges have historically been — and remain — a common destination for veterans because of the availability of courses required for university admissions.

And, the national “Yellow Ribbon” campaign features many private universities granting some veterans heavily discounted rates by partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs in shouldering the remaining costs. Clark Atlanta University, for example, is offering an annual subsidy of $2,500 for up to 25 veterans, officials say.

In 2008, more than 336,000 veterans and active-duty personnel, 100,000 reservists and National Guardsmen and 80,000 survivors used education benefits, according to the VA. In May, VA officials estimated that based on the volume of claims for benefits, the expanded GI Bill could result in a possible 25 percent increase in the number of U.S. college students connected to the armed forces. This could also infuse untold numbers of minorities into higher education. For instance, Blacks and Hispanics each made up 13 percent of the country’s more than 167,000 non-prior-service recruits in fiscal year 2006, according to the Department of Defense.

Untapped Resources

Anticipating this overall enrollment spike — coupled with the growing presence of veterans in college in general — some schools around the country have already initiated veterans-specific services.

San Diego State now offers apartment-style housing for veterans. The University of California, Berkeley offers a for-credit, veteransonly course so that they can hone study skills that sometimes have not been tapped in many years.

Educators say the academic challenges are perhaps the toughest, most daunting hurdle for veterans. Most have not been full-time students since high school.

George Mason University student Antelmo De Leon describes feeling “overwhelmed” last fall while managing a four-class, 12- credit-hour courseload for the first time since 1986, when he left community college to start a 20-year naval career. He feared flunking one of his classes, but says teacher encouragement and his studying harder helped him pass.

For Banko, now 29, academics were only part of the challenge. She had dreamed of becoming a Marine since age 5 when she was fascinated at the sight of uniformed personnel at the annual military air shows and displays her family attended in California. She enlisted soon after high school and was stationed mostly in Okinawa, Japan. But Banko suffered a spinal herniation on the job, resulting in surgery. Her recovery was tempered by the fact that her running speed and ability no longer satisfied military requirements. She was discharged in 2003.

After moving to Hawaii to join her husband, also a Marine, she picked up administrative work at a personnel agency. Less than a year later, her husband was deployed. He would soon die in an apparent suicide.

No one in Banko’s family had ever attended college, and she did not even know the difference between a graduate student and an undergraduate. But in the wake of her husband’s death, she resolved to give Hawaii Pacific University a try “because I had only myself to depend on and my whole life ahead of me.”

Because veterans have unique issues, some universities have gone as far as hiring a full-time advocate. At George Mason, Michael Johnson serves more than 900 former and active-duty personnel and their dependents as director of the Military and Veterans Office. He’s much like a platoon commander running a one-stop resource center.

“The military is so highly structured, giving out orders on how to carry out orders, that many veterans feel alone and afraid once they’re out,” says Johnson, who spent 17 years in the Marines. “They’re goal-oriented and are used to plans of attack, so if we tailor their college plans that way, they can better succeed.” He plans to hire more staff, including a part-time counselor providing psychosocial assessments, guidance and treatment — services that require a six-week wait or longer at the local VA branch due to backlog.

Johnson is not alone in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related conditions. The Borough of Manhattan Community College is among a growing number of schools that have added a full-time, licensed counselor dedicated to veterans’ mental health needs. BMCC officials say that to ease any stigma, they have enlisted some of the 200 veterans enrolled in school there to contact their peers to make them aware of counseling services and therapy.

The tendency of former and current members of the armed forces to share a deep, innate trust — one transcending race and gender — also has translated to word-of-mouth recommendations of which colleges are most military friendly.

“When veterans hear of the warm reception on campus from one of their own, they’re very open-minded about enrolling here,” says Ron Williams, program director of UC Berkeley’s Re-Entry Student and Veterans Services.

Despite UC Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal, anti-war bastion, it is among the schools nationally seeing its veteran population inch upward. This fall’s freshman class will include about 100 veterans, Williams says, compared to 77 last year.

Meanwhile, Banko, who has re-married, hopes to welcome more veterans to San Diego State this fall. After three years at Hawaii Pacific, she moved back to California, where she attended community college for two semesters to earn the prerequisites needed to transfer to San Diego a year ago. She plans to graduate in 2011.

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